ABOVE PHOTO: Japan’s Naomi Osaka returns the ball to Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig during their first round match of the French open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium Sunday, May 30, 2021 in Paris. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
By Howard Fendrich
The leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments reacted Tuesday to tennis star Naomi Osaka’s stunning withdrawal from the French Open by promising to address players’ concerns about mental health.
The pledge came in a statement signed by the same four tennis administrators who threatened the possibility of disqualification or suspension for Osaka on Sunday if she continued to skip news conferences.
The four-time major champion and No. 2-ranked player was fined $15,000 when she didn’t speak to reporters after her first-round victory at Roland Garros on Sunday. The next day, Osaka pulled out of the tournament entirely, saying she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before meeting with the media and revealing she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
Osaka, a 23-year-old who was born in Japan and moved with her family to the U.S. at age 3, said she would “take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right, I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
Tennis players are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so; Grand Slam rules allow for fines up to $20,000 if they don’t show up.
“On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court. She is an exceptional athlete, and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate,” Tuesday’s statement from those in charge of the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open said. “Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention. It is both complex and personal, as what affects one individual does not necessarily affect another. We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling, and we empathize with the unique pressures tennis players may face.”
French tennis federation President Gilles Moretton, All England Club Chairman Ian Hewitt, U.S. Tennis Association President Mike McNulty and Tennis Australia President Jayne Hrdlicka pledged to work with players, the tours and media “to improve the player experience at our tournaments” while making sure the athletes all are on a “fair playing field, regardless of ranking or status.”
In a separate statement issued Tuesday to the AP via email, International Tennis Federation official Heather Bowler said the sport will “review what needs to evolve” after Osaka “shone a light on mental health issues.”
“It’s in all our interests to ensure that we continue to provide a respectful and qualitative environment that enables all stakeholders to do their job to their best ability, without impacting their health, and for the good of the sport,” Bowler wrote.
Various tennis players, including sisters Serena and Venus Williams, offered support for Osaka.
Venus Williams, a 40-year-old who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles and another 14 in doubles with her younger sibling, said at a news conference after her first-round loss Tuesday at Roland Garros that she finds it “definitely not easy to do press, I think, for any person.”
Asked how she handled that over her professional career, Williams responded: “For me, personally, how I deal with it was that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will, so no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me. So that’s how I deal with it. But each person deals with it differently.”
Others praised Osaka for being forthcoming about her personal story in her statement Monday on social media.
“It’s hard. Nobody really knows what anyone is going through, no matter how much they choose to show on the outside. I had no idea about her. But I respect her openness,” 20-year-old American pro Ann Li said after her victory. “Our generation is becoming more open and open, which can be a good thing and also a bad thing sometimes. I hope she’s doing OK.”
Gael Monfils, a 34-year-old from France who also won Tuesday, offered a sentiment surely shared by many around tennis, from tournament and tour officials to athletes to the sport’s fans.
“We need Naomi. We need her definitely to be 100%,” Monfils said. “We need her back on the court, back (at) the press conference — and back happy.”