Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from Roland Garros, sparked by a media standoff and mental health issues, has prompted an outpouring of reaction across tennis and world sport.
Osaka quit the French Open after boycotting her first round press conference, as planned; which saw her fined and threatened with disqualification in a joint statement by the four Grand Slams. Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner and the world No.2, revealed that she had suffered major depression and anxiety issues in the past few years, partly triggered by media appearances.
Veteran Sports Illustrated tennis journalist Jon Wertheim wrote that there was “disappointment and even anger” at the outcome, saying that it could be “a watershed moment” for the sport’s attitude to mental health.
“My first thought was one of profound empathy for Osaka. My next was of deep disappointment, because it shouldn’t have come to this,” he wrote. “Anyone who knows Osaka knows she isn’t entitled or a grandstander as she has been portrayed. You had a feeling she did not realise how quickly this situation would escalate.
‘The four majors got together – something they famously don’t do often – and released a harsh, even menacing and humiliating statement, essentially threatening to ban her. To use a French word, a little nuance would have been nice.”
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Wertheim reported that Osaka “was very emotional after suffering a loss in Miami” and noted her struggles on clay courts. He added: “One irony: she had always been something of a media darling. Her press conferences were inevitably engaging and different, and I think a lot of us in the press room were surprised to hear this was the source of so much anxiety.”
Champions from both tennis and the broader sporting community weighed in, including Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Stephen Curry.
“You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this – but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect @naomiosaka,” NBA megastar Curry wrote on Twitter.
King posted: “It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well.”
Former men’s top 10 player Mardy Fish said that mental health had to be treated more seriously, referencing his own struggles.
“Mental health is nothing to criticise. Nothing to joke about. Pls take your mental health seriously. Without my support system, I truly believe I would not be here today. Here for you @naomiosaka,” Fish posted on Twitter.
Other tennis media figures also weighed in.
“This entire situation is a mess. Terrible look for everybody involved tbh. And terrible for the sport,” Jose Morgado, a Portuguese writer and commentator, said on Twitter.
New York Times contributor Ben Rothenberg wrote on Twitter: “This was a rough saga, but I think this was the best call for Naomi, unfortunate as it is for her and for tennis. If she’s not in a headspace to be under pressures of a Slam, best thing she can do is remove herself from that high-stress environment and focus on her well-being.”
Another tennis writer, Hannah Wilks, reacted furiously.
“I’d like to congratulate all four Grand Slams on handling this the worst, most insensitive way possible. You really outdid yourself this time, tennis,” she wrote on Twitter.
Veteran French tennis journalist Carole Bouchard defended the media’s position in the Osaka controversy. She pointed out that Roland Garros press conferences this year were not face-to-face but via digital conferencing.
“Osaka posting the message that she should have posted from the start. Absolutely a pity for her, the tournament and the media here. And should have been avoided,” she wrote on Twitter.
“I’ve said from start that had she come and said she was struggling mentally, it’d have been much different. I still don’t get why it was first presented as if she was under media attack and we were terrible people. I’ll miss her here. But maybe we had to go through that.
“Also a pity that a solution wasn’t just to walk back into that press room where, as she said, the press has always been kind to her. Tennis would have given her that peace of mind here, there was no need to start all of this. Everyone lost in the end. Hope to see her back in Wimbledon.
“Finally, I’m happy the Tour hold firm on its own rules. Btw for those who don’t know: there’s no media in the Roland-Garros press rooms this year again due to covid. We’re all on virtual mode, even those of us who are on site.”
Australian tennis commentator and former player Rennae Stubbs had one word: “WOW.”
Former player turned coach and commentator Brad Gilbert said that he hoped Osaka would return for Wimbledon in a month’s time.
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