Naomi Osaka speaks out after French Open mental health controversy: ‘Athletes are humans’

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(NEW YORK) — Tennis star Naomi Osaka is speaking out in-depth for the first time about her withdrawal from this year’s French Open due to mental health concerns, and the unexpected debate and controversy that followed her decision.

“I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers,” Osaka wrote in an essay published in Time magazine. “I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s O.K. to not be O.K., and it’s O.K. to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”

Osaka, 23, withdrew from the French Open in late May after being fined $15,000 for missing a post-match press conference.

One of the top ranked tennis players in the world, Osaka had announced at the start of the tournament she would not participate in the mandatory post-match news conferences in order to preserve her mental health.

She also did not compete in this year’s Wimbledon due to what she has said are her mental health struggles.

Osaka, who lives in the U.S. but plays for Japan, confirmed in her Time essay that she will compete in the Summer Olympics, scheduled to begin July 23 in Tokyo.

“After taking the past few weeks to recharge and spend time with my loved ones, I have had the time to reflect, but also to look forward. I could not be more excited to play in Tokyo,” she wrote. “An Olympic Games itself is special, but to have the opportunity to play in front of the Japanese fans is a dream come true. I hope I can make them proud.”

After her French Open exit, Osaka took to Twitter to reveal that she has “suffered long bouts of depression” since 2018.

She explained in her new essay that she felt pressured to reveal her mental health struggle because of the stigma surrounding her decision to not do post-match press conferences.

“In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones,” she wrote. “I also do not want to have to engage in a scrutiny of my personal medical history ever again. So I ask the press for some level of privacy and empathy next time we meet.”

“Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions,” she wrote. “In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual. You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy.”

Osaka’s choice to exit the French Open sparked a conversation about athletes’ mental health and the ways in which mental health is dealt with in the workplace in general.

The tennis star says she would like to see some change come in the ways tennis players specifically interact with the press, writing, “The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better.”

“In my opinion (and I want to say that this is just my opinion and not that of every tennis player on tour), the press-conference format itself is out of date and in great need of a refresh. I believe that we can make it better, more interesting and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer,” she wrote, adding that she would like to see professional tennis players offered, “a small number of “sick days” per year where you are excused from your press commitments without having to disclose your personal reasons. I believe this would bring sport in line with the rest of society.”

While Osaka received backlash from her decision to leave the French Open, she says she also received public support, which she expressed gratitude for in her essay.

“I also want to thank those in the public eye who have supported, encouraged and offered such kind words. Michelle Obama, Michael Phelps, Steph Curry, Novak Djokovic, Meghan Markle, to name a few,” she wrote, adding, “Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it.”

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