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Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from French Open shakes the status quo in sports

Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open has stunned the world of sports, but will it be the catalyst to change the existing system?

Naomi Osaka (Source: Tennis World USA)

Naomi Osaka (Source: Tennis World USA)


Md Imtiaz

Updated: 2 Jun 2021 3:23 AM GMT

Something unprecedented took shape late on Monday night in Indian time. An argument that was brewing for a couple of days and had the attention of the world media, resulted in a volcanic eruption when an embattled Japanese superstar and world no. 2 tennis player Naomi Osaka announced her withdrawal from the French Open.

The withdrawal that has stunned the entire sports world comes in the wake of her decision to boycott post-match media duties, explaining she had been suffering from depression for almost three years.

During the build-up to the tournament, the 23-year-old had said that she would not attend the obligatory press conferences, citing that the way journalists quiz players adversely impacts her mental well-being. The four-time Grand Slam champion made good on her threat on Sunday when, after winning her first-round match, she did not hold a press conference. Since then a floodgate of disciplinary measures was hurled upon her and which probably coerced her to take the big step.

No matter how rushed it may sound, Osaka's decision has also opened the floor for the necessary discussion on mental health in the competitive field of sports.

Osaka is the world's highest-earning female athlete this year, earning more than $55 million from prize money and endorsement deals, which is a record for any female athlete in sports history. besides, her brand value has further been bolstered after Grand Slam wins in US Open and Australian Open where she took a stand against racial injustice. Being at the top of her popularity, it is quite expected that whatever she says is bound to make waves.

A move that could set precedents

While Osaka had already said she would not be attending the press conference following her matches at the French Open, as a consequence she was fined $15,000 on Sunday and threatened with disqualification after she refused to carry out a mandatory news conference following her first-round win. She also was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments with possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension, if she continued with her intention. It is here when things turned bitter.

Osaka has gone on to say that she is introverted, shy and gets huge waves of anxiety before she speaks to the world's media. Going by her records, she has seen comparatively limited success in the French Open where she has never moved beyond the third round. She probably had speculated a similar outcome and therefore resisted in being 'kicked by fans and the media when she is being down'.

With the pandemic looming large, many equations in the sporting world have changed. Not only the virus has affected people around the world physically but also brought a pate of mental health issues to the fore. Almost every player is being asked today about their mental conditioning that could have taken a toll amid the pandemic.

Osaka has mentioned her depression and anxiety that are crippling and horrible conditions that can bury the sufferer in a blanket of blackness. It's something impossible to understand unless individual experiences the same. Her decision to refuse to do post-match interviews had become a bigger show than the French Open itself. She said the decision was "exercising self-care" and now she's taken the further decision to put her wellbeing first and walk away from it all.

Naomi Osaka during her opening French Open match

Many fear that if Osaka's boycott of press conference sets a precedent and many will follow the suit of pulling out of media commitments. Athletes with the money and platform will have their narratives spread far and wide while those lower down will not. Fans may not hear the revealing stories of the athletes, who grip them tightly sets inspiration. It will in turn impact player earnings, sponsorships among other things. But is it fair to set an example of Osaka who has cited something as serious as mental health concern?

Osaka is not batting just for, she is representing everyone who is battling mental health issues. For a 23-year-old, the pressure of winning and failing to live up to the pressure could be taxing. After losing at the first round of Wimbledon in 2019, she was asked whether her two Grand Slam titles were "too much success, too early." She had broken down while talking to the press and excused herself by candidly saying that she might need to cry. At a time when we are seeing sportspersons acting as mere puppets in the hands of their agents who are dictating their outward image and choosing the words for them, should Osaka be punished for her choosing to hold on to what she believes?

Every individual responds differently

With the amount of competition in professional sports and in the race to turn into elite athletes, individuals react differently. For instance, a Roger Federer is equally flawless in his off-court presence like his on-court mettle. His press conferences have been quite entertaining. Whereas, a person like Novak Djokovic is known for his on-court antics. What might be an easy affair for one person, might not be the same for another.

The legend Serena Williams has stood beside Osaka. When she was pushed for her opinion, Serena said, "The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it's like. Like I said, I've been in those positions. We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I'm thick (skinned). Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.

Martina Navratilova tweeted: "I am so sad about Naomi Osaka.I truly hope she will be ok. As athletes, we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi- we are all pulling for you!"

What could we learn?

Osaka's stance to withdraw from the French Open is a matter of great courage. When an elite player speaks on mental issues it creates a ripple effect and could be seen as a step that could bring about a necessary change in the space of competitive sports. Her position could also have a pathbreaking step for other players to talk about mental health in the highly rigorous culture. Mental health issues affect people from all walks of life and make them vulnerable. And the more we talk about it, the more awareness would be created of taking matters seriously. It's time competitive sports bodies should come together and rethink how to change the status quo.
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