Why did fragile Naomi Osaka even go to the French Open if she was battling mental demons?
Announcing her decision to walk away from the clay courts of Roland-Garros after the first round this week, Osaka revealed she had been suffering “long bouts of depression” ever since the US Open in 2018.
“Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted,” Osaka added in her withdrawal announcement.
“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me – and I want to apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt – I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
Although the likes of rent-a-gob Piers Morgan would have you believe otherwise, Osaka genuinely seems to be struggling with the expectations and obligations that accompany her status as one of the leading luminaries of the sporting world.
Painfully shy, the 23-year-old often stumbles her way through interviews and press conferences, grateful just to survive the ordeal. Her off-court demeanor could hardly come in starker contrast to the gritty character Osaka has demonstrated on her way to winning four Grand Slam titles.
According to her statement, Osaka will now take some time away from tennis, which most right-minded observers will hope can give her the space she needs to think about where she goes from here. A protracted absence from the sport is not what anyone wants – that much is clear.Also on rt.com ‘Woke-ravaged world’: Piers Morgan likens ‘cynical’ Naomi Osaka to Meghan & Harry after tennis ace’s sister admits she ‘f*cked up’
What’s equally evident, though, is that the French Open debacle has done little to aid Osaka’s personal well-being, or the cause for which she professes to be campaigning.
Her media omerta may have projected mental health issues into the broader conscience once again, but we now live in a world so saturated with stories of depression and mental anguish that they become commonplace, inducing eye-rolls rather than sympathy. That is especially the case when coming from someone who is the highest-paid female athlete in the world, pocketing an annual $37 million at the last count by Forbes.
As such, Osaka has left herself open to accusations of being privileged and pampered, attempting to shirk an aspect of her job that lesser names see as among their only chances to engage with the media and earn some publicity.
Osaka appears content to court attention and take advantage of her platform, but only on her own terms – whether that's launching a new swimwear collaboration leading up to Roland-Garros, or championing the Black Lives Matter cause.
This time, tennis bosses have taken a tough stance, with the organizers of the four Grand Slams banding together to warn Osaka that she risked expulsion as a result of her recalcitrance in Paris.
The swipe by the French Open Twitter account – which shared images of various stars performing media duties, along with the caption “they understood the assignment” – was petty and ill-conceived, but the overall response was robust and unequivocal: you either play by the rules, or don’t play at all.
Among her fellow players, it’s hard to find many who have overtly backed Osaka’s stance – as the Japanese star herself belatedly seems to have realized.
"I understand her but for me, without the press, without the people who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today," said men’s icon Rafael Nadal.Also on rt.com ‘The media made us what we are’: Rafael Nadal slams Naomi Osaka’s refusal to take questions from the press during the French Open
That seemed to be the prevailing theme – sympathy, but no real willingness to fundamentally change the current relationship between tennis players and the media who cover them.
That leads us to our next question: what exactly was Osaka expecting to achieve with her campaign? A world where players can pick and choose their post-match press obligations whenever they feel up to doing them?
At best, that seems a misguided millennial pipedream – at worst, it comes across as myopic and self-centered, and is perfect ammunition for the likes of Piers Morgan.
By projecting her personal struggles onto the broader stage, Osaka has assumed that they were in the best interests of all in her sport, when many fellow players would disagree.
Osaka now finds herself in a mess largely of her own making, starting a campaign she is in no position to finish. Why attempt to change the fundamentals of a sport when you are clearly so delicate, merely piling more scrutiny upon yourself when what you wanted was less of it? Journalists, meanwhile, will be left tip-toeing around Osaka in future, afraid to ask the tough questions in defeat that should be asked of her or any fellow player.
Considering all of the above, it’s not insensitive to ponder why Osaka even turned up at Roland-Garros this year. She – or at least the people in her team – could have seen the response to her media plans coming and braced themselves for it. After all, Osaka even alluded to the pushback in her initial media boycott message, speaking of her willingness to accept the fines that would come with forfeiting her obligationsAlso on rt.com ‘She wants everything straight away’: Russian tennis ace hailed for words on Osaka as rebel slams ‘anger', ‘lack of understanding’
Osaka could have saved herself more torment by announcing in advance that she was feeling too fragile to play in Paris, a move which would have precipitated a similar discussion without turning it into the mid-tournament circus it has now become.
Osaka has made the right decision by pulling out in Paris – but perhaps it’s one she should have made even earlier.
By Liam Tyler