I am not even a tennis fan, and yet it caught my attention when Naomi Osaka, one of the top tennis players in the world, withdrew from the French Open (one of the biggest tournaments of the tennis season) last week as a result of a dispute with event organizers about her decision not to speak with news media during the event. There can be disputes between athletes and the press, but seldom (if ever) does it get to a point that a star athlete withdraws from a major event.
However, it was no ordinary dispute between an athlete and the press. Osaka has made it clear that her decision to avoid the press was due to the impact press conferences had on her mental health—something that should not be taken lightly given the fact that the tennis star noted that she has suffered from “long bouts of depression” for years. And yet, in spite of the fact that she made it clear that the decision was made in order to take care of her mental health, she was given a $15,000 fine from the organizers of the French Open and was threatened with expulsion from the tournament. As a result of all of this, Osaka withdrew from the tournament entirely.
As someone who knows people who battle depression, I am personally sympathetic to Osaka. Others have been much less sympathetic. However, regardless of where your own sympathies lie in this instance, there are some things that I think all of us should try to learn from this situation:
- Successful people can struggle with their mental health. This should be the first, and maybe most obvious, thing that people should get from this whole situation. Osaka is a world-class tennis player, a winner in four “Grand Slam” tournaments, and considered one of the top women’s tennis players in the world right now. And yet she goes through long bouts of depression. This goes to show that depression is not just for people who are struggling with life in general—highly successful people can go through it too.
- Even successful people can have certain things that give them a ton of anxiety. For Osaka, it is speaking with the press—she said that she feels “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking with the press. In other words, successful people are human too!
- Different people process similar events or situations in different ways, and that is okay. To see how this can be the case, look at how Osaka and one of her tennis competitors, Serena Williams, deal with invasive and inappropriate questions from the press. Some people argue that since Serena Williams can weather through the pressure of such press conferences, so should Osaka. But, the fact is that Williams and Osaka are different people with probably different things that have an impact on their mental health.
- Punishing someone for avoiding a certain obligation out of self-care puts that individual into a box: either forcing them to do the certain thing they’re avoiding out of self-care, or simply going in a different direction entirely. When the organizers of the French Open (who, in my humble opinion, should be ashamed of themselves) gave the punishment they did to Osaka, those were the two options she had: she could’ve avoided self-care by facing the press (which she decided not to do) or go in a different direction (which, in this case for Osaka, meant withdrawing from the French Open). Either way, punishing someone’s attempt at self-care as they’re battling something like anxiety or depression is not wise, and if one is not careful, could put someone’s life in peril.
These are just a few of the takeaways I have from the Osaka situation, though if others have other takeaways, feel free to let me know in the comments section below. Regardless, I want, and hope, that the situation with Osaka can be an opportunity to think not just about the mental health of athletes, but about mental health in general.
 Read more about the dispute here: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2021/may/31/naomi-osaka-withdraws-french-open-press-conference-fines-tennis
 “Grand Slams” are the biggest tournaments on the tennis calendar, the tournaments with the most prestige. Those Grand Slams are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open.