Sports

Breaking Point

One of the top tennis players on the planet withdraws from a major competition, citing mental health concerns and the press.
What Happened & Why It Matters

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What Happened

  • Who: 23-year-old Naomi Osaka, the world's top-paid female athlete and "most magnetic figure in tennis" (New York Times).
  • What: On May 26, Osaka tweeted that she would not "do any press during the French Open (Roland Garros)" noting concerns for herself and other athletes' mental health. After her first-round win on May 30, she skipped her post-match press conference and was fined $15k. Debate erupted over her decision. Osaka withdrew from the tournament the following day.

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"...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. I never wanted to be a distraction..."

Osaka on May 31, announcing her withdrawal from the French Open. She shared how she has dealt with "long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018," where in a tense match vs. Serena Williams she became the first Japanese person to win a Grand Slam singles tournament, and said she now gets "huge waves of anxiety" before speaking to the media.

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Important Context

  • Tennis players are required to be available for 20 - 60 min. "to participate in post-match media activities, win or lose..." according to the Women's Tennis Association's Rulebook.
  • The board of the Grand Slam tournaments warned Osaka if she continued to ignore her media obligations, suspension or disqualification could follow.
  • Roland-Garros (French Open): "...(media) rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement."

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"The WTA welcomes a dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches that can help support an athlete as they manage any concerns related to mental health, while also allowing us to deliver upon our responsibility to the fans and the public."

In a statement, the Women's Tennis Association said that "professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans and to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story."

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"As often happens when sensitive stories blow up, some people think they have to line up on one side or the other: You either support Osaka and think press conferences are a stupid waste of time, or you think she should toughen up and do her job. Well, I support Osaka. But press conferences are absolutely not a stupid waste of time."

Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg says Osaka "revealed far more about herself" than she would in a press conference, but hopes they continue for athletes and fans alike.

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Osaka said she wants to work with the Tour "when the time is right" to discuss how they "can make things better for the players, press and fans." Although this story focuses on a specific athlete and sport, it highlights a recurring question in sports journalism about "appropriate" access to athletes. For example, questions have surfaced about journalists in the locker rooms while players undress post-game. Questions on where to draw the line and *who* gets to draw it continue to meet challenges.

Jun 1, 2021

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