Tennis giant Naomi Osaka has dropped out of the French Open after clashing with the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and one day after officials threatened to expel her from the upcoming Grand Slam tournament all over her refusal to show up for press conferences after her matches. Listen: Media is important, and it’s part of the job of professional athletes to engage the media, but at the same time, people who don’t regularly experience social anxiety don’t understand how extreme and debilitating it can be.
“Never before has such a consequential star exited an event as big as the French Open over something that nearly every top tennis player has said in recent days is as much a part of being on the tour as lengthy travel schedules,” the New York Times reports. And while that might be true, the fact that a thing is standard doesn’t mean it’s always healthy, and sometimes what a job requires can be too much. Osaka decided for herself that part of her job was too much and she acted accordingly.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the issue, this whole drama started last week when Osaka posted on social media that she wouldn’t be speaking to the press during the French Open because she believes it can harm the mental health of athletes, particularly when they have to answer insensitive questions fresh off of a loss.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health, and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she wrote. “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.
“I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room and I know you have as well,” she continued. “I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while [they’re] down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”
Like in many sports, professional tennis players are required to attend press conferences lest they be fined for neglecting that part of the job.
Osaka—who is now the highest-paid female athlete in the world—said she would rather pay the fine than sacrifice her mental health by forcing herself to speak to the press.
“If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote.
According to the Times, WTA Tour officials responded to Osaka’s message on Friday saying that it welcomed dialogue with her about the mental health of tennis players while maintaining that “professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.”
From the Times:
Within hours she was fined $15,000 by the French Open tournament referee. In addition, the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments — the Australian, French and United States Opens and Wimbledon — warned that she risked harsher penalties, including being defaulted from the tournament, if she continued not to fulfill her media obligations.
In Instagram and Twitter posts on Monday, the 23-year-old slightly changed her tone saying that she “never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.”
“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,” she wrote.
She still stuck to her guns about prioritizing her mental health over doing press conferences, even if it means she needs to take a break from the court in order to take care of herself.
“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,” she wrote Monday. “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.”
Again, there are two arguments to be made here that are both valid. On one hand, the sports world doesn’t look the same for the fans or for the careers of professional athletes if they don’t engage with the press. It’s part of the job and if every pro-athlete shirked that responsibility it would hurt the world of sports. On the other hand, the struggle to maintain mental health is real. How much can we really say we care about our favorite superstars if we expect them to sacrifice their wellbeing for our entertainment or for the sake of the game?
When you think about it, the WTA and the tennis world, in general, are probably losing more by Osaka not participating in the French Open than if she had been allowed to play without doing news conferences.
Either way, Osaka made her decision and she chose to put herself first. Can you really be mad at that?