COMMENTARY

Naomi Osaka Withdraws From the French Open: When Athletes Struggle

Dinah Miller, MD

June 03, 2021

In 2018, when Naomi Osaka won the U.S. Open by defeating Serena Williams, the trophy ceremony was painful to watch.

Dr Dinah Miller

Ms. Williams had argued with an umpire over a controversial call, and the ceremony began with the crowd booing. Ms. Osaka, the victor, cried while Ms. Williams comforted her and quietly assured Ms. Osaka that the crowd was not booing at her. When asked how her dream of playing against Ms. Williams compared with the reality, the new champion, looking anything but victorious, responded: "Umm, I'm gonna sort of defer from your question, I'm sorry. I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I'm sorry it had to end like this."

It was hardly the joyous moment it should have been in this young tennis player's life.

Ms. Osaka, now 23, entered this year's French Open as the Women's Tennis Association's second-ranked player and as the highest-paid female athlete of all time. She is known for her support of Black Lives Matter. Ms. Osaka announced that she would not be attending press conferences in an Instagram post days before the competition began. "If the organizations think they can keep saying, 'do press or you're going to get fined,' and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh," Ms. Osaka posted.

She was fined $15,000 on Sunday, May 30, when she did not appear at a press conference after winning her first match. Officials noted that she would be subjected to higher fines and expulsion from the tournament if she did not attend the mandatory media briefings. On June 1, Ms. Osaka withdrew from the French Open and explained her reasons on Instagram in a post where she announced that she has been struggling with depression and social anxiety and did not mean to become a distraction for the competition.

Psychiatrists Weigh In

Sue Kim, MD, a psychiatrist who both plays and watches tennis, brought up Ms. Osaka's resignation for discussion on the Maryland Psychiatric Society's listserv. "[Ms.] Osaka put out on social media her depression and wanted to have rules reviewed and revised by the governing body of tennis, for future occasions. I feel it is so unfortunate and unfair and I am interested in hearing your opinions."

Yusuke Sagawa, MD, a psychiatrist and tennis fan, wrote in: "During the COVID-19 pandemic, I rekindled my interest in tennis and I followed what transpired this past weekend. Naomi Osaka is an exceptionally shy and introverted person. I have noted that her speech is somewhat akin to (for lack of a better term) 'Valley Girl' talk, and from reading comments on tennis-related blogs, it appears she has garnered a significant amount of hatred as a result. Most of it is along the lines of people feeling her shyness and modesty is simply a masquerade.

"I have also seen YouTube videos of her signing autographs for fans. She is cooperative and pleasant, but clearly uncomfortable around large groups of people.

"Having seen many press conferences after a match," Dr. Sagawa continued, "tennis journalists have a penchant for asking questions that are either personal or seemingly an attempt to stir up acrimony amongst players. Whatever the case, I truly do believe that this is not some sort of ruse on her part, and I hope that people come to her defense. It is disturbing to hear the comments already coming out from the 'big names' in the sport that have mostly been nonsupportive. Fortunately, there have also been a number of her contemporaries who have expressed this support for her."

In the days following Ms. Osaka's departure from the French Open, the situation has become more complex. She is now the keystone for discussions of athletes and gender, race, power, mental illness, and the role of social media as it is used in these types of communications.

Maryland psychiatrist Erik Roskes, MD, wrote: "I have followed this story from a distance and what strikes me is the intermixing of athleticism – which is presumably why we watch sports – and entertainment, the money-making part of it. The athletes are both athletes and entertainers, and [Ms.] Osaka seems to be unable to fully fulfill the latter part due to her unique traits. But like many, I wonder what if this had been Michael Phelps? Is there a gender issue at play?"

Stephanie Durruthy, MD, added: "[Ms.] Osaka brings complexity to the mental health conversations. There is no one answer to her current plight, but her being a person of color cannot be minimized. She magnified the race conversation in tennis to a higher level.

"When she was new to the Grand Slam scene, her Haitian, Japanese, and Black heritage became an issue with unending curiosity.

"[Ms.] Osaka used her platform during the 2020 U.S. Open to single-handedly highlight Black Lives Matter," Dr. Durruthy continued. "Afterward, the tennis fans could not avoid seeing her face mask. In each match, she displayed another mask depicting the name of those killed. She described on social media her fears of being a Black person in America. The biases of gender and race are well described in the sports world."

Lindsay Crouse wrote June 1 in the New York Times: "When Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open, after declining to attend media interviews that she said could trigger her anxiety, she wasn't just protecting her mental health. She was sending a message to the establishment of one of the world's most elite sports: I will not be controlled. This was a power move – and it packed more punch coming from a young woman of color. When the system hasn't historically stood for you, why sacrifice yourself to uphold it? Especially when you have the power to change it instead."

Professional sports are grueling on athletes, both physically and mentally. People will speculate about Ms. Osaka's motives for refusing to participate in the media briefings that are mandated by her contract. Some will see it as manipulative, others as the desire of a young woman struggling with anxiety and depression to push back against a system that makes few allowances for those who suffer. As psychiatrists, we see how crippling these illnesses can be and admire those who achieve at these superhuman levels, often at the expense of their own well-being.

Dr. Kim, who started the MPS listserv discussion, ended it with: "I feel bad if Naomi Osaka needs to play a mental 'illness' card, as opposed to mental 'wellness' card."

Let's hope that Ms. Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open sparks more conversation about how to accommodate athletes as they endeavor to meet both the demands of their contracts and when it might be more appropriate to be flexible for those with individual struggles.

Dinah Miller, MD, is coauthor of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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