Star Naomi Osaka has just decided to step away from the French Open — and the entire sport of tennis — rather than be interviewed about the tournament. The number-two-ranked women’s tennis player and highest paid female athlete took to Instagram and Twitter to make her announcement.
Early in the tournament, she expressed her intention to skip the mandatory tournament press conferences, claiming the questions are repetitive and harming her confidence. She likewise criticized the tournament’s requirement of “do press or you’re gonna be fined” to harm athletes’ mental health. This decision incurred a $15,000 fine, along with a threatened suspension, as one of her contractual obligations for playing in the tournament is engaging with the press.
Rather than face journalists or wait to be kicked out of the tournament, Osaka stepped away herself, in order to do “the best thing for the tournament, the other players and [her] well-being.” She minimized her earlier attacks on the tennis press, shifting focus to discussing the depression she faced since her victory in the 2018 U.S. Open. Osaka defeated Serena Williams in an exciting upset, but the win was overshadowed by Williams’s penalty for throwing and breaking her racket in anger, and fans booed as Osaka took her trophy.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) offered to engage in “dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches that can help support an athlete as they manage any concerns related to mental health,” but they stand by their press requirement, stating, “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.”
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
Osaka has garnered substantial accolades from other athletes and public figures. Fellow tennis players Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff, and Venus Williams, the latter of whom has also faced fines for skipping press conferences, showed their support in the Instagram comment section. Sprinter Usain Bolt, actress Jameela Jamil, and countless other celebrities likewise joined in praising Osaka for protecting her mental health.
However, not all were quite as encouraging. Famed former players Billie Jean King and Patrick McEnroe said they understand Osaka’s stance, but noted the importance of the press for the continued viability of professional tennis. King noted on Twitter, “Without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today,” although she acknowledged the need for reporters to “respect certain boundaries.”
McEnroe told “Good Morning America” that Osaka deserves “an awful lot of credit, but ultimately, “she is a professional tennis player, she is an athlete so you have to abide by certain rules, one of which is speaking to the press on a regular basis.”
Rafael Nadal took a similar position, stating, “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.”
Currently number-one-ranked women’s tennis player Ash Barty told the press, “We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players,” noting “I’ve never had problems answering questions. It’s not something that’s ever fazed me too much.”
Piers Morgan wrote a scathing critique of Osaka’s decision in the Daily Mail. While praising the “brilliant tennis player,” he described her as “an arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions.”
He posits that, rather than attempting to protect her mental health, she instead is endeavoring “to avoid legitimate media scrutiny by weaponizing mental health to justify her boycott,” comparing the tennis player to Megan Markle in her attempts to use mental health to evade any criticism.