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TENNIS | Naomi Osaka Withdraws from French Open Citing ‘Huge Waves of Anxiety’

Osaka’s decision to pull out of one of tennis’ four major tournaments is the latest chapter in a story that has generated major headlines over the past several days.

Ed Odeven

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Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open on Monday, May 31 and didn’t issue a timetable for her return to competition.

Citing “huge waves of anxiety” when speaking in front of the media, the four-time Grand Slam singles champion erased no doubts that her career could be at the crossroads.

A day after her 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) first-round victory over 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday, May 30, when she was fined $15,000 USD ($20,000, or about ¥2.19 million JPY, is the maximum allowable fine) for refusing to attend a post-match news conference, Osaka’s decision to withdraw from one of tennis’ four major tournaments is the latest chapter in a story that has generated major headlines over the past several days.

In announcing her withdrawal from the tournament on social media, the 23-year-old Osaka said she’s been coping with depression since her breakthrough triumph over Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open women’s final, her first career Grand Slam title.

“I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,” Osaka wrote in her post.

“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris. I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.”

Offering some introspective insights, she continued by adding, “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. … I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

French Tennis Federation President Gilles Moretton commented on Osaka’s abrupt departure.

“First and foremost we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland Garros is unfortunate,” Moretton said. “We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery. And we look forward to having Naomi in our tournament next year.”

Last week in the run-up to the French Open, Osaka announced that she would not talk to the press because of mental health concerns.

She posted a message on social media that said in part: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this is very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

In a whirlwind stretch of a few days, Osaka’s story galvanized the sports world, with supporters and critics weighing in on her decision to implement a media boycott.

Serena Williams reacted to Osaka’s exit from Roland Garros by expressing support for her rival.

“I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. … I’ve been in those positions,” Williams said. “We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick [thick-skinned]; other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that’s the only thing I can say. I think she’s doing the best that she can.”

Retired legend Martina Navratilova, one of tennis’ all-time greats, tweeted: “I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be OK. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi ー we are all pulling for you!”

Tennis Authorities Defend Media Policies

Reacting to Osaka’s decision to dictate the rules of her media engagement, tennis’ top tournament leaders responded with swiftly and in a unified voice.

Moretton along with Tennis Australia President Jayne Hrdlicka, All England Club Chairman Ian Hewitt and U.S. Tennis Association President Mike McNulty issued a joint statement reaffirming that players have a commitment and a duty to interact with the media.

“Naomi Osaka today chose not to honor her contractual media obligations,” the statement said on Sunday. “The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct.”

The four tennis authorities defended their media policies and the reason they exist.

“A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves,” the statement said. “These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story.”

In addition to the aforementioned $15,000 fine, Osaka faced possible suspension and disqualification from upcoming tournaments if her media boycott had continued. But Osaka’s departure from the marquee event prompted a different declaration from the Women’s Tennis Association, the sports’ women’s pro governing body.

“Mental health and awareness around it is one of the highest priorities to the WTA,” the WTA wrote in a statement. “We have invested significant resources, staffing and educational tools in this area for the past 20-plus years and continue to develop our mental health support system for the betterment of the athletes and the organization. We remain here to support and assist Naomi in any way possible and we hope to see her back on the court soon.”

As the world’s No. 2-ranked player, who hauled in $50 million in endorsements and $5 million from on-court earnings over the past 12 months, Osaka decided the French Open, an event she had never won or advanced past the third round, would be the setting for her media boycott.

In explaining her rationale to shun the press, she cited the fact that she doesn’t like how the media does its job.

“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m not just going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” she wrote on social media on Wednesday, May 26.

Osaka’s Critics Join Debate

Columnist Piers Morgan, writing for the British tabloid Daily Mail, blasted Osaka for her anti-media stance.

“Petulant Osaka was fined $15,000 for refusing to appear in front of the media during the current French Open Roland-Garros tournament, and a joint statement from all four Grand Slam organizers said she will face ‘more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions’ if she continues her boycott,” Morgan wrote in this thought-provoking piece.

“Of course, given that she earns around $6,000 an hour, Osaka will recoup this fine while she sleeps tonight, rendering the fine utterly meaningless.

“What’s not meaningless is her frankly contemptible attempt to avoid legitimate media scrutiny by weaponizing mental health to justify her boycott.”

Tennis legend Billie-Jean King joined a large throng of prominent figures in the sport who defended the media’s role in keeping the sport in the spotlight and relevant to the public.

“I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media,” said King, who won 39 Grand Slam titles in her brilliant career. “In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. They helped build and grow our sport into what it is today.”


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[ODDS and EVENS] Naomi Osaka Could Do Far More Good by Engaging, Not Boycotting the Media


Author:  Ed Odeven

Follow Ed on JAPAN Forward’s [Japan Sports Notebook] here on Sundays,  in [Odds and Evens] here during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven.

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Ed Odeven is a longtime sports journalist who previously worked for The Japan Times as its chief basketball reporter for nearly 14 years. He also covered a wide range of other sports for the newspaper, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2012 London Games. A graduate of Arizona State University, Odeven worked for several newspapers in the Grand Canyon State before moving to Japan. He has freelanced for dozens of media outlets around the world.