Naomi Osaka leaves the French Open and opens a necessary discussion about Black women in the media
The tennis star has faced undue scrutiny all too familiar to Black women in sports.
On Monday, May 31, the last day of Mental Health Awareness Month, Naomi Osaka announced via Twitter that she will be taking some “time away from the court,” and not participating in the upcoming French Open, citing mental health concerns.
In the post, Osaka explained that she has been dealing with symptoms of depression since the U.S. Open tournament in 2018, and experiences social anxiety and public speaking phobia during press conferences.
The four-time Grand Slam champion broke the news on social media following a standoff with tournament officials who had fined her $15,000 for refusing to take part in media obligations.
In a separate post on Wednesday, May 26, the Japanese tennis star wrote on Twitter that she won’t be participating in any press conferences at Roland Garros (French Open). She also expressed frustration with the way that the media bombards athletes, with little regard to their emotional state.
“I’ve watched many clips of athletes breaking down after a loss in the press room, and I know you have as well. I believe that the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it,” she wrote.
Knowing full well that tournament officials would not receive this decision well, Osaka finished her statement with: “I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
It was a bold and courageous step that Osaka took for herself, fellow athletes and anyone else struggling to prioritize their mental health.
In demanding that she be seen as human first, athlete second, Osaka put herself at risk for further consequences if she continues to neglect her media obligations.
A statement from tournament officials said that she could face suspension from future competitions.
"As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments,” the statement reads.
This isn’t the first time that Osaka has spoken up about how the press sometimes has a negative impact on her mental health.
Although the Japanese tennis mogul is ranked No. 2 in the world, she is still just 23 years old, and the high-pressure tournaments and press conferences can take a toll.
In an interview with Highsnobiety last year, Osaka said that sometimes when she is playing, her mind wanders towards the press, and that makes things stressful for her.
“I feel like people think that I'm kind of poker-faced, but inside is definitely a rollercoaster for me,” she said.
Anyone throwing their 2 cents at this young woman needs to watch this from 2018 after a match in Charleston. Kudo's for Naomi for taking care of herself. Now and then #NaomiOsaka #mentalhealth @RexChapman pic.twitter.com/r8ixMxL6C4
— Dean Stephens (@abcnews4dean) May 31, 2021
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) released a statement on Friday, May 28, stating that it is “welcoming a dialogue” with Osaka and all players, to discuss new approaches to supporting athletes as they manage their mental health, while still delivering upon their “responsibility to the fans and the public.”
“Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans and to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story,” the WTA wrote.
Serena Williams, whom Osaka defeated in the 2018 U.S Open final, spoke to the press on Monday, May 31, after her first-round victory, saying that she empathizes with Osaka.
Williams admitted that certain post-match interviews are nerve-wracking.
“You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to and the best way she thinks she can. That’s the only thing I can say: I think she is doing the best she can,” Williams said.
For many fans, this series of events goes deeper than a lack of regard and respect for the mental health of a tennis champion — it’s yet another example of how the sports world treats women, specifically Black women and other women of color.
Between Meghan Markle and Naomi Osaka, Black women are villainized for talking about and prioritizing their own mental health. The misogynoir is disgusting and when Black women are in pain, no one cares until it’s too late.
— ari (@laciguapa_) May 31, 2021
Biased against Black women… again
In the 2018 U.S Open, Osaka’s first Grand Slam title was overshadowed by the controversy surrounding her opponent (and tennis idol) Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slams.
It all began when the umpire, Carlos Ramos, decided that William’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had advised her from the sidelines. Williams denied this, but Ramos issued a violation anyway. She then received a second violation for smashing her racket in frustration, causing her to lose a point.
This led to an argument in which Williams called Ramos a “thief” for taking a point, resulting in yet another violation for verbal abuse, leading to the loss of an entire game.
Many fans and fellow tennis stars were outraged by the way Williams was treated. Even professional players Andy Roddick and James Blake admitted on Twitter that they have said far worse to umpires and experienced no real repercussions.
Following this game, artist Mark Knight published a cartoon in the Herald Sun, depicting a racist caricature of Williams, mid-tantrum and stamping on her tennis racket.
The umpire is shown asking Osaka: “Can you just let her win?”
— QandA (@QandA) September 18, 2018
London-based writer Tobi Oredein told NPR that the cartoon exemplifies a dangerous combination of sexism and racism.
“At the heart of 'misogynoir' — because it only affects Black women — is a caricature of the angry, Black woman," she said. "And it dehumanizes us, and it stops us showing emotion."
For Osaka, ever since this controversial win, she was thrust into the spotlight and admitted to facing harassment on social media.
During a news conference in 2019, Osaka said, through tears, that up until this year, people weren’t even paying attention to her, and she doesn’t feel comfortable with the new attention, both positive and negative.
A tearful Naomi Osaka reflects on life in the limelight after her shocking opening round loss to Kiki Mladenovic. pic.twitter.com/LwnlwhuUDD
— Tennis Channel (@TennisChannel) February 19, 2019
“I don't know why I'm crying. I don't know why this is happening. I don't really like the attention, so yeah, it's been a little tough,” she said.
Many Twitter users were proud of Osaka for choosing self-care and standing up to an industry that often demonizes, exploits and unfairly punishes Black women and other women of color.
“The media has dogged Venus and Serena Williams for decades. Now they are doing it to Naomi Osaka. No matter the industry or realm, the media constantly attacks high achieving Black women and then expects them to continue on unbruised like the whole institution didn’t attack them,” one user wrote.
Sports journalist Annie Apple, also commented on Osaka’s bravery.
“As Black women, we’ve been made to feel that our strength is measured by how much shit we can take. Naomi showed her strength by knowing how much shit she can’t and won’t take. That’s true strength,” Apple wrote.
Osaka’s decision has opened up a lot of necessary conversations. It’s time to acknowledge that celebrities are people first, and their only true obligation is to their own health, safety and wellbeing.
Heart goes out to Naomi Osaka. This image from US Open in 2018 made us all feel uneasy. Only 20, but boos ringing around venue as she wins first major title. Struggling with mental health since then. Sport needs to do more to protect its own pic.twitter.com/XeXJ3TVN2B
— Darren Frehill (@Darrenfrehill) June 1, 2021
It’s also a great opportunity for tournament officials, fans and those in the press to examine the ways in which Black women celebrities have been vilified for years, and make appropriate adjustments.