World number two Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the French Open.
Just a day after her first-round win over Romania’s Patricia Maria Țig, the Japanese star announced her decision to withdraw from the tournament, amid a backdrop of controversy.
Last week, the four-time Grand Slam winner announced that she would not be fulfilling any media engagements at Roland-Garros this year, revealing she believes that constant grilling by the media has a negative impact on the mental health of players, herself included.
When Osaka stayed true to her word and skipped post-match press duties after her victory over Tig, French Open organisers were not happy. The number two seed was fined $15,000 over her absence – and warned that a repeat would see her expelled from the tournament.
On Monday evening, Osaka took the matter out of their hands when she let the world know she would not be taking any further part in the event.
“This isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” said Osaka in a statement shared on her social media accounts. “I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
The 23-year-old continued: “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.
“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
Osaka won her first-ever Grand Slam title at Flushing Meadows three years ago. However, her victory over Serena Williams in the final was marred by a row between the American and chair umpire Carlos Ramos. As a result, Osaka lifted the trophy to the sound of boos, something which regrettably still affects her today.
“Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety,” she bravely shared.
Thanking certain members of the media for their kindness and concern, Osaka admitted: “I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
Elsewhere in her statement, Osaka explained that she had written to tournament chiefs in an effort to clarify her position, even offering to speak fully with the media after the event had concluded. Unfortunately, no resolution could be found.
“I’m going to 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,” concluded Osaka.
After the news broke, many of the sports stars rallied around their colleague.
“So proud of you. Take care of yourself and see you back winning soon,” wrote Venus Williams on Instagram.
“Stay strong. I admire your vulnerability,” said Coco Gauff.
Legendary 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova also lent her support to Osaka, agreeing that changes need to be made.
“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 and 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,” declared Navratilova.
There is no denying that press engagements are very much a part of the job for any major sports star, particularly someone with the profile of Naomi Osaka. However, when it is clear that a player struggles with that side of their role – as was the case here – more should be done to protect the individuals involved.
The rigid insistence of French Open chiefs on not working with Osaka to find an alternative has cost the tournament one of its biggest names. It is also a terrible look for the sport in general.