In Naomi Osaka, Tennis Was Served a Mental Health Challenge and Failed Badly

Monique A. Rainford, MD


June 02, 2021

When I read the news about tennis star Naomi Osaka not only being fined $15,000 but also being threatened to be dismissed from the French Open after she declined press interviews due to mental health concerns, my initial reaction was that this was an unnecessarily harsh penalty.

I must admit that I've never been a devoted tennis fan. I'm familiar with some of the greats — Serena and Venus Williams, Pete Sampras, Rafael Nadal — and my father, an avid tennis watcher for years, would regularly update me during the big events. Perhaps my feelings about Osaka's treatment were due to not being fully aware of the rules.

When I read of her decision to withdraw from the tournament, I felt a surge of pride that this young Black Asian woman put her health first, despite how difficult it must have been.

I read an article in The New York Times that attempted to provide more context to both sides, but my feelings remain unchanged. I believe that the leadership of the French Open was unduly punitive and should have handled things differently. Should she have been more communicative with the organizers of the French Open? Maybe, but I'm hard pressed to blame a 23-year-old who admitted that she needed to avoid the press for mental health reasons.

In Sports, as in Medicine, Mental Health Goes on Being Neglected

Mental health issues have been neglected for years, even in the very profession I have served in for over 20 years. The suicide rate for female physicians is 130% higher than that of females in the general population and 40% higher for male physicians. These statistics are in spite of the fact that those who choose to become physicians are no more likely to be vulnerable to stress or burnout than their peers in other professions.

Despite the valiant work of mental health professionals, I can't help but think that medicine could be far more successful in managing these conditions if it started by properly preparing its own practitioners to do so.

One of my earliest rotations as a medical school student was psychiatry. I found the field fascinating but was frustrated by the slow progress that patients seem to make. It felt like we weren't able to do enough to help them. Furthermore, mental health education is not a traditional part of training of obstetricians and gynecologists, even though these are the primary care providers for many women and often the only doctors they see.

Fortunately, successful therapy has improved over the years, but from my perspective as a women's health physician, we appear to still have a long way to go.

I think this very unfortunate event with Naomi Osaka should be a wake-up call to the leadership of the French Open and to the broader world of sports. However, given the fact that her decision to avoid media had initially provoked warnings from all four Grand Slam Tournaments rather than efforts to find solutions or compromise, which they offered only after she withdrew, I don't think they are there yet.

Perhaps we in medicine should ask whether we are there yet either.

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