Trailblazers: A History of Grit and Perseverance
In order to maintain her mental health, Naomi Osaka before the 2021 French Open said she was not going to do post-match press conferences. After a first-round win, she followed through and was swiftly fined $15,000 -- and threatened with disqualification in Paris and the three other majors if she continued to avoid the mandatory media sessions.
Osaka withdrew from her second-round match and posted an extraordinary statement on social media.
“I never wanted to be a distraction, and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” Osaka wrote. “More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
The four-time Grand Slam singles champion, who represents Japan, resurfaced nearly two months later at the Olympics in Tokyo. That coincided with a passionate personal essay in Time Magazine, titled, “It’s O.K. to not be O.K.”
Perhaps, she argued, athletes should have the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on rare occasions without being subject to strict sanctions.
“In my case,” she wrote, “I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms -- frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones.”
She went on to thank Michael Phelps, Michelle Obama and Novak Djokovic for their support. Phelps told her that by speaking up she might have saved lives.
“If that’s true,” she wrote, “then it was all worth it.”
Osaka is one of the prominent voices in a welcome trend where WTA Tour players are increasingly comfortable using their platforms to address mental health, body shaming, social bullying, racism and sexism.
When Ashleigh Barty retired in March 2021 -- at the age of 25 -- she said she sometimes felt like a “robot” and candidly discussed her bouts of depression over the years. In 2022, Bianca Andreescu took a three-month sabbatical from tennis, telling The Guardian, “There are more important things out there than winning or losing or even just playing tennis.”
After losing her first four matches of 2023, two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza announced she was stepping away for the clay and grass seasons. “Spending time with family and friends and it’s really been healthy and amazing, so I am going to lengthen this period till summer,” she wrote on Instagram.
Fellow Spaniard Paula Badosa understood.
“I empathize a lot with it,” she said. “Mental health is very important in this sport, people are not aware of how difficult it is, it hurts me to see that she is delaying her return, for me she has always been an example to follow.”
At this year’s Roland Garros event, the French Tennis Federation announced that players would be equipped with an innovative anti-online harassment AI tool, which monitors and moderates comments received by the players on their social media posts in real time.
World No.1 Iga Swiatek, who would go on to win her third French Open in four years, said she would use it.
“It’s just sad to kind of see that [social media,] the thing that was supposed to kind of make us happy and make us socialized is giving us more negative feelings and negative thoughts,” she said. “I think these kind of apps maybe will help us to use social media and not worry about those things.”
Back in July, Osaka reported that she had given birth to a daughter and is expected to return for the 2024 Australian Open after a 15-month break from tennis.