On the court, Naomi Osaka can still physically pound her opponents to a pulp.
She’s the same incredible athlete. Nothing has changed — except for a very public admittance of details about her mental health after she chose to withdraw from the French Open earlier this week.
Yet in the span of mere days, the highest-paid female athlete and the the No. 2 ranked women’s tennis player in the world went from being widely portrayed as a powerful businesswoman and a savvy steward of social justice worthy of magazine covers to someone who needs to be handled with kid gloves.
This response is telling. How this plays out in the tennis community and the wider world of sports in the coming months will tell volumes about society’s, let alone the world of competitive sports’, understanding of mental health.
Even though they might say the right things in a situation like this, many in the sports world — writers, fans and tournament directors alike — don’t fully accept that mental health is intertwined with physical health.
It’s as if all the research is still locked in labs, only understood and accepted by scientists, but not the general public, let alone the people capable of creating structural change within professional sports.
In Osaka’s case, the change in discourse about her was traceable in real-time. Commentators who initially heaped on criticism changed their tune as they determined what was the most socially acceptable reply. That process wouldn’t be necessary if people were grounded in science and removed from the antiquated inclination that issues like anxiety and depression are just mental weakness.
After Osaka announced that she would be declining requests to appear before the press after matches, a contractual obligation, tennis legend Martina Navratilova commented on TV that Osaka needed to just “man up” and “deal with it.”
But by the next day, Navratilova was on board with a more conciliatory statement, tweeting, “I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope that 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- we are pulling for you!”
Others too, soon followed with vague, supportive responses, including Gilles Moretton, the head of the French Tennis Federation that organizes the French Open, who said the tournament is “sorry and sad” about Osaka’s withdrawal, though he stopped short of apologizing to Osaka.
Their intentions were likely genuine. Yet missed is the crucial detail that the four-time Grand Slam winner would likely still be in the tournament if the governing powers had allowed her to do what she said was best for her mental health and sidestep the post-match press conferences. Though she was fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension from future games, Osaka ultimately withdrew when her request became its own sideshow. She had wanted the fines that she knew would come to be sent to a mental health charity.
Before Paris, the 23-year-old had been the “it” girl of her sport for both her on-court achievements as well as her philanthropy and activism.
She aligned her brand with the Black Lives Matter mantra to “say their names” by putting George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tamir Rice on the masks she wore at the U.S. Open. Last summer, she joined other pro sports boycotts over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, skipping her semifinal match at the Western & Southern Open.
Osaka has acknowledged her own mistakes in how the situation at the French Open was handled. In doing so, she has kept to her brand: respectful, humble but steadfast in taking a stand.
Though Osaka announced she is taking some time away from the court, her involvement in conversations about sports and mental health is likely only beginning. But these conversations will take place if and only if the world of tennis, of sports reporting, of women’s sports and its fans are willing to listen to and believe athletes.
Readers can reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter