Teuila Fuatai: Naomi Osaka’s French Open exit spotlights mental health of elite tennis athletes

OPINION:

I’ve often thought elite tennis is one of the lonelier professional sports.

Certainly, at the very top in the Grand Slam leagues, even a prolonged glance at a coach can earn the wrath of a referee tasked with upholding strict non-coaching rules during matches. Not to mention the isolating and testing circumstances of the professional circuit.

But when a player’s been training their entire life for that environment, having the psychological skills or mental toughness to manage it and everything it encompasses is par for the course.

Eventually, it’s what separates the greats from those just below them. Right?

As Naomi Osaka put front-and-centre this French Open, it’s simply not that clear-cut.

Over a few days, during the first round of Roland-Garros, the 23-year-old’s decision to pre-emptively announce she would not be attending post-match press conferences put obligations and culture around top tennis players under the spotlight.

In a Twitter post, Osaka linked the format of press conferences and the requirement to do them to athletes’ mental health, and questioned their overall point. For her, it was a way of explaining her decision, and publicly accepting the US$15,000-per-match fine for doing so. (It should also be noted, the financial penalty is not a significant factor for Osaka and other top players because they earn a lot. Osaka is also the world’s top-earning female athlete.)

Following a rather dogmatic response from the organisers of the Grand Slams, which warned Osaka could be expelled from Roland-Garros for her stance, the young player pulled out entirely.

It was sad news, released publicly by Osaka via a statement on social media channels. She also expanded on her earlier post, citing long bouts of depression since the 2018 US Open and anxiety around press conferences and public speaking.

Since then, there’s been intense scrutiny of Osaka. Everything from her track record on clay to her activism for the Black Lives Matter movement and past appearances at press conferences has been examined in the context of her actions this past week.

At the other end, those who set the rules in professional tennis have been criticised for their handling of the situation. The tennis press corps and post-match conference format have been called out by players and reporters themselves as problematic. Notably, it was also defended by members of these same groups as valuable, and part-and-parcel of being a professional tennis player.

The result: A messy start to the French Open where one of the few uniting threads seems to be the importance of “helping Naomi” and taking players’ mental health challenges seriously. The difficulty of that – as the Grand Slam organisers perceive it – is making sure changes moving forward don’t unfairly advantage some athletes over others.

Unfortunately, it’s a fundamental misframing of the issue. Yes, Osaka’s actions have put her at the centre of the current situation, and yes, she likely could have taken a more tactful approach, giving organisers more time to consider what’s at stake.

However, the apparent lack of insight into wider problems regarding post-match press conferences demonstrates an unwillingness from organisers to practically address what Osaka is highlighting. After all, skipping post-match press conferences is not a new phenomenon. A raft of top players, including Novak Djokovic and Serena and Venus Williams, have all been no-shows on previous occasions. Osaka stands out because she withdrew from participating even before hitting the court, and also publicly stated why.

Her frankness challenges the overarching narrative that conferences are simply “part of the job”. Further, it opens a discussion around what a better, less toxic format could look like, which inevitably would improve the after-match experience for all players – not just the ones who openly admit to struggling with it.

US tennis journalist Caitlin Thompson delves into the topic on a CBC podcast. Thompson, who has a background in political reporting, highlights the lack of accountability and boundaries in post-match press conferences – with women athletes of colour often targeted the most.

“When [journalists] are asking questions in press conferences, their names don’t appear next to the questions. I can tell now who the bad actors are, but the fact they’re in there tournament after tournament, but protected by anonymity is really problematic,” she says.

Thompson says implementing standards around questions, and consequences for journalists who flout them, is something “tennis media could do better – starting tomorrow”. Diversifying the “especially ossified, especially male, especially cynical, especially jaded and especially white” tennis press corps is another easily implemented, long-overdue change, she says.

Perhaps Grand Slam organisers could start here in their pursuit of progress for player mental health. After all, changing expectations around the post-match press conference doesn’t advantage any particular player. It simply makes things more civilised and less hazardous for everyone involved.

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