The fallout from Osaka’s French Open withdrawal

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Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka has won four Grand Slam titles

When Naomi Osaka won the US Open in 2018, she pulled down her visor to hide her tears.

It was her maiden Grand Slam title, she had beaten the great Serena Williams to win it, and she had a bright future ahead.

Except that the victory had come in unusual and traumatic fashion, with boos and controversy surrounding Williams’ infamous outburst at the umpire.

And we now know that this title also marked the start of the “long bouts of depression” that have led to Osaka pulling out of the French Open in a move that has sent shockwaves through the sport and raised the prospect of some soul-searching for the authorities and media.

Roland Garros is now without one of the sport’s biggest stars, and despite Osaka’s desire to not “be a distraction” she and the issues she raises are firmly in the spotlight.

Did the authorities handle things well?

Osaka received a lot of support from fellow players and athletes over her decision to boycott news conferences at Roland Garros.

And there was criticism of the sport’s governing bodies’ strongly-worded statement on Sunday, which threatened her with expulsion from the French Open and future Grand Slams over what she said was a decision based on seeking to protect her mental health.

American basketball player Stephen Curry was critical of the authorities, saying the “powers that be don’t protect their own”, while former British number one Laura Robson also questioned whether the matter could have been dealt with differently.

“I’m sure a lot of people are disappointed with how the statement was handled yesterday from the Grand Slams and how strong it was,” Robson said on BBC Radio 5 Live.

“Maybe if they had not let it escalate to this point then we wouldn’t be here.”

In a statement after Osaka’s withdrawal, French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton said major tennis bodies were committed to athletes’ wellbeing and improving their tournament experience, including their interaction with the media.

Osaka said “the rules are quite outdated in parts” and that she wants to discuss with the Tour ways of making things better.

Did Osaka herself handle things well?

Osaka’s announcement on 27 May that she would not be taking part in news conferences took a lot of people by surprise.

Not least the tournament organisers, who said her decision was “not acceptable”, and critics who branded it “diva behaviour”external-link and said she was gaining an “unfair advantageexternal-link” by not fulfilling her media commitments.

Former British player Naomi Cavaday told BBC Radio 5 Live that if Osaka had communicated her concerns with tournament organisers in a different way they may have come up with a mutually agreeable solution.

“It’s awful to hear she has been struggling so much since she became a Grand Slam champion. But in this game you can’t just decide what you’re doing then and there with zero communication with businesses and organisations, and especially when you sign contracts to do things,” she said.

“If the issue had been raised in a more professional, direct manner rather than it just being taken to social media and the decision taken out of their hands, I do think there would have been discussions at least around how it could be easier.”

Osaka herself said her “timing was not ideal and her “message could have been clearer”.

Cavaday said there are “processes in place that if you are struggling with your mental health you can communicate that and try to come to some sort of short-term resolution and then look a little more longer term”.

“But I also recognise, as someone who has struggled myself, how difficult it is to initiate that conversation in the first place,” she added.

And what about the media?

BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller

It is a sobering thought that Naomi Osaka has been suffering long bouts of depression ever since winning her first Grand Slam in New York at the age of 20.

It is also disconcerting to acknowledge she would probably still be competing in the French Open if it wasn’t for the obligatory media commitments that come with it.

Many of us will reflect on our choice of language now we are in possession of more detail, and the four Grand Slams must also question their decision to raise the temperature so significantly by threatening Osaka with expulsion from the event.

It may have been done out of fairness to other players – and after an unsuccessful attempt to contact Osaka – but it was a stance which ultimately robbed the tournament of one of its biggest draws.

Many people were stung by Osaka’s initial post. It was unfair on the WTA Tour, which invests a lot of time in preparing athletes for the many demands of professional sport, and also on large parts of the media who are able to treat difficult interviews with sensitivity.

But it was written under duress, at a time Osaka was feeling vulnerable and anxious, and so those words should not be held against her.

Media interaction with players should remain an integral part of the sport, but after this painful episode the hope must be that the experience is enhanced for all concerned.

Will mental health be talked about more?

From quirky news conferences with Pokemon references to uneasy acceptance speeches, Osaka has endeared herself to both fans and the media over the years.

The softly spoken Japanese player has previously described herself as the “most awkward” person in tennis, but she has also become one of its most powerful voices with her activism.

But the public did not know she had been “having a hard time coping” with bouts of depression.

British heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson said she hoped there would now be more conversations around depression in sport.

“She’s so brave to speak out and protect her wellbeing,” she wrote. “Mental health, especially in sport, is such a risky topic to be open about. Hopefully change will come off the back of her withdrawal and it will open up conversations around depression in sport to break down the stigma.”

Serena Williams was asked in her news conference on Monday if she felt enough is done by the WTA and Grand Slams to help tennis players’ mental health off the court.

“I feel like there is a lot of articles and stuff that they put out,” she said. “I think you really have to step forward and make an effort, just as in anything. You have to be able to make an effort and say, I need help with A, B, C and D, and talk to someone.

“I think that’s so important to have a sounding board, whether it’s someone at the WTA or whether it’s someone in your life. Maybe it’s someone that you just talk to on a weekly basis.”

Former world number one Billie Jean King tweeted her support:

When will Osaka be back on court?

In her statement, Osaka did not put a timeframe on her return, saying she was going to “take some time away from the court now”.

Robson thinks she may not be back in time for Wimbledon, which starts in four weeks.

“From her statement it is unclear when she does plan to come back,” she told BBC Radio 5 Live.

“I think it would be a quick turnaround for her to come back for Wimbledon and be thrown in the deep end at a Grand Slam, especially Wimbledon.”

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