Tennis star makes a stand for mental health

Press stress: Osaka tweeted that rules about press conferences were “outdated”. © Getty

Has elite sport become too cruel? Today the world of tennis is in turmoil after Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open in protest against the demands of the media.

The press conference from 2019 is excruciating to watch. Naomi Osaka, then 21, has just lost in the first round of Wimbledon. She looks miserable; her answers are slow and lifeless. “When you play someone you’ve lost to so recently,” one journalist asks, “how hard is it not to have that in your head?” Osaka repeats the question; finally she mutters, “Very hard. I don’t know how to answer that.”

To some people, it looks like mental cruelty in action. But to many organisers and sponsors of sport, it is just another part of an athlete’s life. Tennis players sign contracts obliging them to give a press conference within 30 minutes of a match ending, and – win or lose – that is what they must do. If they refuse, they can be fined up to $20,000.

Now, the world’s number two female player has decided that enough is enough. Last week, just before the beginning of the French Open, she announced that she would not be giving any interviews during the tournament.

“I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health, and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," Osaka said. "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."

She added that she expected a hefty fine, but hoped the money would go to a mental health charity.

Her statement caused a furore. The head of the French Tennis Federation, Gilles Moretton, labelled it “a phenomenal mistake.” But several prominent athletes applauded the move, including the British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith. While many journalists are admirable, she said, there are some who “try to find, and at times create, cracks in your psychology."

On Sunday, true to her word, Osaka refused to give a press conference after winning her opening match. A statement followed from the Grand Slam organisers saying that she could face expulsion from the tournament. And on Monday things came to a head: in a long tweet, Osaka announced that she was withdrawing.

“The truth is,” she said, “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.” She added that she felt “huge waves of anxiety” before press conferences, and now planned to take a break from tennis.

Many people in both sport and the media have declared their support for Osaka. “As athletes,” said Martina Navratilova, “we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift.” Tennis players, wrote Barry Svrluga in The Washington Post, “are not cyborgs. They are humans.”

But others, while expressing sympathy, insist that press conferences are important. “Not everybody knows what we’re dealing with on court,” said Iga Światek. “It’s good to speak about that.”

Has elite sport become too cruel?

Courting controversy

Some say, yes: athletes are human beings, not machines, and it is about time we started treating them as such. The last thing anyone wants to do after a tough match – particularly if they have lost – is face questions from a roomful of journalists. Post-match interviews are a comparatively new development in the history of sport, so to say that they are vital is ridiculous.

Others argue that sport is big business, and talking to the press is part of the job. Osaka earned some $55m in 2020, but only $5m of that consisted of tournament prizes – the rest came from sponsors who wanted media exposure. If you are earning that kind of money, you have to give something in return. It may be tough mentally, but so is every aspect of professional sport.

You Decide

  1. Should other players boycott press conferences to support Osaka?
  2. Do post-match interviews make sports personalities more interesting, or less?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you have a chance to interview Naomi Osaka. In pairs, make a list of 20 questions to ask her.
  2. Hold your own press conference. Choose three people in your class to act as members of a controversial winning team, then bombard them with questions.

Some People Say...

“Be careful what you wish for if you desire fame. No human being should be a goldfish.”

Bill O’Reilly (1949 – ), American journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Naomi Osaka is a highly unusual sports star. She is a very inconsistent player: she has won four Grand Slams, but lost in the early rounds of every other one she has played in. Despite her anxiety about the media, she is known to give charming and perceptive interviews. Born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, she has become a prominent anti-racism campaigner, appearing at the US Open in masks carrying the names of African-American people killed by the police.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around what can be done to help players like Osaka. The professional circuit, with its almost non-stop schedule, is hugely tough: Barry Svrluga describes it as “almost designed to foster mental-health issues”. Ashleigh Barty, the top seed in Paris, took a two-year break from it. “I needed time to step away, to live a normal life,” she says, “because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal.” One solution might be to make interviews only compulsory for winning players.

Word Watch

Excruciating
Extremely painful. The term derives from the Latin word for a cross.
Osaka
Also the name of the city in Japan where Naomi was born.
Furore
Uproar. Originally an Italian word, it comes from a Latin word meaning to be mad.
Dina Asher-Smith
She holds the British records for the 100 metres (10.83 seconds) and the 200 metres (21.88 seconds).
Grand Slam
The name given to the world’s four top tennis tournaments: the US, Australian and French Opens and Wimbledon.
Martina Navratilova
Born in 1956 in what was then Communist Czechoslovakia, she is one of the most successful female players ever.
Cyborgs
People who are part human, part machine. The word is a fusion of “cybernetic” and “organism”.
Iga Światek
The current French Open champion.

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