Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open and announced that she will be stepping back from tennis.
The world No 2 – who won her opening match of this year’s tournament at Roland Garros against Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday – stated that she had suffered ‘long bouts of depression’ since winning the US Open in 2018, and that she needed a break from the controversy that has enveloped her in the past week.
The US and Australian Open champion stated last Wednesday night that she would be refuse to attend press conferences this fortnight, on the grounds that they are injurious to her mental health.
Naomi Osaka has announced that she will be withdrawing from this year’s French Open due to uproar caused by her refusal to do media duties
Following a strong response from the four Grand Slams, and little in the way of solidarity from fellow players, she is now withdrawing from her second round.
In a statement on her social media she said: ‘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. More importantly I would never trivialise 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. 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.
The world No 2 won her opening match at Roland Garros against Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday
‘Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologise especially 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.
‘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 I announced it pre-emptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
‘I’m gonna 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.’
With less than four weeks to go until the start of Wimbledon it must be considered doubtful whether she would play there, or at the Olympics that follows in the country of her birth.
The enormous attention that her stance attracted seems to have taken her, and her advisers, by surprise. The declaration from the French Open and the three other Grand Slams that she ran the risk of being banned, and not just fined, also took seasoned observers aback in its swiftness and uncompromising nature.
But the start to the tournament has been overshadowed by her boycott of media duties
On Sunday there had been a hint of exasperation in the statement from the four Majors, which referred to the ‘lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka’ after they reached out to her.
Osaka was also fined an initial £10,800 following her victory on Sunday.
Her sister Mari attempted to defend Osaka’s stance with a Reddit post, only to delete her words later and admit she had ‘made the situation worse.’
‘OK so I f***** up. My words are coming across so horribly to a lot of people who think taking care of mental health is strategic,’ Mari wrote.
‘I didn’t emphasise the fact that Naomi is dealing with a ton of s*** and honestly fighting for the care of mental health in my post so now a lot of people are taking it as ‘She doesn’t want to hear criticism’.
‘I’m sorry Naomi I probably made the situation worse.’
In her initial online post, Mari, 25, revealed a comment from a family member had an adverse effect on Naomi and added extra detail as to why her younger sister would not be fulfilling her media commitments at Roland Garros.
Osaka released a statement earlier this week saying she would boycott the press at the French Open, citing mental health concerns as the reason behind her decision
‘Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad at clay. At every press conference she’s told she’s has a bad record on clay,’ Mari wrote.
‘When she lost in Rome r1 she was not OK mentally. Her confidence was completely shattered and I think that everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay.
‘This isn’t true and she knows that in order to do well and have a shot at winning Roland Garros she will have to believe that she can. That’s the first step any athlete needs to do, believe in themselves.
‘So her solution was to block everything out. No talking to people who is (sic) going to put doubt in her mind. She’s protecting her mind hence why it’s called mental health.
Osaka said she had suffered bouts of depression since winning her first slam title at the US Open in 2018
‘So many people are picky on this term thinking you need to have depression or have some sort of disorder to be able to use the term mental health.
‘I don’t know what she is going to do in the future when the tournament pushes back and threatens to default her but I fully support my sister’s actions because she’s just trying to do what’s best for her. Tennis players don’t get paid to do press conferences. They only get paid when they win matches.’
The grand slams – threatening statement on Sunday meanwhile read: ‘The Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site.
‘Following the lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes’ well-being and suggest dialogue on the issues. She was also reminded of her obligations, the consequences of not meeting them and that rules should equally apply to all players.
Osaka’s sister Mari (R) attempted to defend her sister and her decision to boycott the press
‘As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.
‘As a sport, there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation, if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.’
Osaka is, sadly, by no means the first leading tennis star who has struggled with the pressures of their status in a hugely competitive individual sport. Jennifer Capriati would be another, and more recently Nick Kyrgios has talked of having depressive episodes.
Osaka also has to cope with agreeing to the demands of satisfying a huge roster of commercial sponsors, who helped make her the best paid female athlete on earth last year at an income reckoned to be close to £40 million.
Mari’s original post explained the context behind Naomi’s decision to boycott the media
Mari backtracked on her original Reddit post following an angry reaction from users online
Her revelation that she was ‘already feeling vulnerable and anxious’ in Paris raises the question of whether it was healthy for her to compete in this fortnight’s Grand Slam in the first place.
The absence of someone who is among tennis’s biggest drawcards is another blow to a sport whose international nature has meant it being hit harder than most by the past year’s pandemic.
One welcome aspect has been the return of Roger Federer, who yesterday took to the court for his first Grand Slam appearance since the Australian Open eighteen months ago.
He looked impressively sharp as he dismissed Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin 6-2 6-4 6-3. His fellow 39 year-old Serena Williams was due to take her bow in last night’s evening session.
THE FOUR GRAND SLAMS STATEMENT IN FULL
Last Wednesday on social media that she would not participate in the mandatory media interviews at Roland-Garros 2021.
Following this announcement, the Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site.
Following the lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes’ well-being and suggest dialog on the issues. She was also reminded of her obligations, the consequences of not meeting them and that rules should equally apply to all players.
Naomi Osaka today chose not to honour her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct.
The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams.
We individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to player well-being. In order to continue to improve however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences. Every year we seek to deliver better experiences to our fans, our players and our people, and we have a long and successful track record in achievement on this count.
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. These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story. The facilitation of media to a broad array of channels, both traditional and digital, is a major contributor to the development and growth of our sport and the fan base of individual players.
We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences. As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).
We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement. As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.
Finally, all Grand Slams remain committed to continually reviewing and discussing opportunities, together with the Tours and the players, to improve every aspect of the player experience, including with the media. But we consider this is only ever achieved through respectful and constructive discussions.
*The statement was made on behalf of; Jayne Hrdlicka, Tennis Australia Chair & PresidentGilles Moretton, FFT President, Ian Hewitt, AELTC Chairman and Mike McNulty, USTA Chairman of the Board & President