The world number 2, Naomi Osaka in a bold move astonished the tennis world Monday by announcing her withdrawal from the French Open, citing mental health issues.
In a tweet announcing the move, Japan’s Osaka also said she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018.
The 23-year-old said last week she would not do news conferences at Roland Garros to protect her mental health.
“I never wanted to be a distraction,” the four-time major winner said.
While other players have left major tournaments midstream, typically because of physical injury, this was different.
In an Instagram post, Osaka also noted that she had suffered from depression and social anxiety since playing in a highly stressful US Open back in 2018 and that she goes through “huge waves of anxiety” before she speaks to the media.
Osaka’s response to her own anxiety was a profound exercise in self-care. It is a great lesson for us all, especially as the Covid-19 crisis continues to abate and we navigate heading back into the world.
As for Osaka, some of her colleagues have been gracious and supportive. Serena Williams wished she could give her a hug. Others said that tennis stars know well beforehand that conferences with reporters are a part of the professional tennis circuit, and Osaka should either have come prepared or bowed out beforehand.
On Sunday, Osaka won her opening match against Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig in straight sets and was fined $15,000 (£10,570) for not doing post-match media.
Later that day, a joint statement from Grand Slam organisers said Osaka could face expulsion from the tournament if she continued to avoid them.
That led to the player announcing her withdrawal on Monday, saying she was going to “take some time away from the court now”.
“When the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans,” she added.
French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton said the withdrawal of the second seed was “unfortunate”.
“We are sorry and sad for Naomi,” Moretton added. “We wish her the best and quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our tournament next year.
“As all the Grand Slams, the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, we remain very committed to all athletes’ wellbeing and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our tournament, including with the media, like we have always strived to do.”
Osaka’s statement in full
“This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago. I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing 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 my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.
“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.
“Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.
“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I want to apologise to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.
“I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.
“So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
“I wrote privately to the tournament apologising and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.
“I’m going to take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
Sport stars support Osaka
Coco Gauff, American world number 25: “Stay strong. I admire your vulnerability.”
Martina Navratilova, 18-time Grand Slam singles champion: “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 and emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi – we are all pulling for you!”
Stephen Curry, American basketball player: “You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this. So damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect.”
Katarina Johnson-Thompson, British heptathlete: “She’s so brave to speak out and protect her well-being. Mental health, especially in sport, is such a risky topic to be open about. Hopefully change will come off the back of her withdrawal and it will open up conversations around depression in sport to break down the stigma.”
Many athletes, both in and out of tennis, applauded Osaka’s stance after she announced it on Wednesday, although many said speaking to the media is “part of the job”.
Grand Slam rules state players can be fined up to $20,000 (£14,160) for failing to meet their media obligations, with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) saying players “have a responsibility to their sport and their fans” to speak to the media during competitions.
Following her win over Tig, Osaka did take part in the usual on-court interview with the victor.
Later on Sunday, organisers of the four Grand Slams released a joint statement saying Osaka could face “more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions” for her decision.
The Grand Slams added that following Osaka’s announcement on Wednesday, Roland Garros teams had asked her to reconsider her position and were unsuccessful in their attempts to check on her wellbeing.
After a “lack of engagement” from Osaka, the Grand Slam organisers wrote to her to offer support, as well as to “remind her of her obligations”.
In response, the two-time Australian Open champion tweeted: “Anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable”.
The following day, Osaka announced her decision to withdraw from the tournament altogether.