The Grand Slams Are Wrong, Not Naomi Osaka
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
As the French Open began this weekend, the biggest story should have been Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams' quests for milestone Grand Slam titles, or Roger Federer's return to the sport's biggest stage, or the plethora of young stars in both the men's and women's draws. Instead, all of the attention was on Naomi Osaka's decision to skip press appearances during the tournament. The situation quickly spiraled out of control, and culminated in Osaka's shocking decision to withdraw from the tournament on Monday. As Osaka released a statement explaining her rationale for withdrawing, it became clear that it was the tennis establishment, and not the No. 2 player in the world, who was in the wrong.
On May 26, just four days before the main draw matches at the 2021 French Open began, Osaka took to social media to announce her decision. In her initial announcement, the four-time Grand Slam champion framed the decision as one intended to protect her own mental health. The statement was somewhat unclear as it seemed like Osaka was referencing issues during press conferences that only occur after a loss. This led to speculation that the 23-year-old was acting spoiled because, as a top earner on tour, she can easily afford to pay the fine for skipping a press conference, or simply afraid to address her well-noted struggles on clay. Her announcement was also met with compassion for her well-being but, mostly, disagreement over the idea of skipping a press conference among her peers.
On May 30, Osaka defeated Patricia Maria Tig (6-4, 7-6) in the first round and, as promised, skipped her post match press conference after participating in two quick on-court interviews. She was immediately fined $15,000 for the infraction. Just hours after this occurred, the French Open released a joint statement with the other three Grand Slam tournaments threatening Osaka with potential consequences such as default from this tournament, and suspension from future Grand Slam events.
Later that day, as the situation spiraled out of control, Osaka's sister, Mari, took to Reddit to post, and then amend, and then delete a statement attempting to clear up the decision. The statements, as Mari admitted, only made the situation worse as they seemed to confirm the theory that the decision was more about her sisters' clay struggles than mental health.
Then, at 7:47 P.M in Paris on May 31, Osaka tweeted a lengthy statement explaining her rationale and revealing her shocking decision to withdraw from the tournament.
Osaka decided to withdraw because she believed it would be the "best thing for the tournament, the other players and [her] well-being." In the statement, Osaka admitted that her "timing was not ideal" and that her "message could have been clearer." She went on to reveal that she has "suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018" (which is when and where she won her first Grand Slam). Osaka went on to discuss her introverted personality and struggle to cope with her social anxiety. She apologized to the media, while once again reiterating that it was not about them, and stated that her anxiety peaks before speaking to the media. The two-page statement concludes with Osaka pledging to "take some time away from the court," and hoping to work with the, presumably, WTA and Grand Slam tournaments to make the "outdated," as she called it, press conference structure work better for the "players, press and fans."
I will admit, even as a huge fan of Osaka, I was initially conflicted on how to feel about her decision. After all, my fandom was sparked based on her funny interactions with the press as much as it was sparked by her giant serves and blistering forehands. Of course, I will not claim Osaka handled the situation perfectly. My questions over the exact message and the timing were fair, as they were both addressed by Osaka who admitted that she could have done better in these areas.
However, as the dust begins to settle on this saga, it is clear that it was the Grand Slams who overreacted. Their decision to release a joint statement threatening one of the faces of the women's game was completely inappropriate. Even with the original murky messaging, there was no reason to release that statement just hours after Osaka skipped her first press conference. It also wasn't a good look considering the lack of response, let alone action, from the Grand Slams, who operate on their own, outside of the WTA and ATP tours, when it comes to controversies ranging from players spitting on the court to accusations of domestic violence.
In recent years, we have seen an increase in awareness for mental health issues, especially among athletes. The fact that Osaka opened up to reveal her struggles with depression and anxiety is admirable, but the fact that she had to do it in order to "justify" her initial decision to persevere her own mental health is unfortunate. I worry that the blowback that she received from this decision, amplified by the joint statement by the Grand Slams, will only create further problems for Osaka to deal with. Hopefully I am wrong, and hopefully, whenever she is ready to return, Osaka will be welcomed back with the support of fans and fellow players alike. I also hope that she will be successful in her efforts to reform the press conference structure so that players who cannot afford the steep fines, but also struggle with the same anxiety around speaking to the press, can be comfortable.
While it was not the perfect strategy by Osaka at the start, in the end it is clear that she has recognized her missteps and adequately explained her stance. I believe that the new clarity and openness within her statement will ultimately provide solutions and solace for all athletes who deal with mental health issues. Regarding the statement by the Grand Slams, it is unfortunate that they contributed to one of the game's brightest stars' decision to withdraw from a major event. It is also just another example of the sport's establishment being out of touch and unable to correctly rule on major decisions.
Despite my initial concerns, I am completely team-Naomi and hope that, starting with the Grand Slams, everyone else will be too as she deals with her mental health. I cannot wait to see her back dominating on the court and, more importantly, cannot wait to see the change she continues to create off-the-court.