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The well-being of athletes must become a priority

Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open has exposed the outdated reality of sport institutions

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Image Credit: IMAGE: ROB PRANGE

Naomi Osaka released a statement on Instagram early last week, stating that she was withdrawing herself from Roland-Garros’ French Open. This statement and the circumstances surrounding her withdrawal currently occupy a significant proportion of press interest alongside the ongoing competition itself.

Media commentators have referred to her ‘shocking’ and ‘out-of-the-blue’ announcement, yet it hardly requires an intricate investigation into the context of her decision to reveal that this was a far from surprising eventuality.

Osaka is the current world number two, four-time Grand Slam champion. A fast up-and-coming young star in the tennis world at only twenty three years old.

Her 2018 US Open victory over one of tennis’ all time greats, Serena Williams, marked just the first big breakthrough for this standout young talent. Since then she has continued to flourish as the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles title, and the first woman to win successive Grand Slam singles titles since Serena Williams in 2015.

Remarkably, Osaka’s rise to stardom has been of no distraction to her activist work, particularly with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement. Both on- and off-court she has proven herself an influential figure for aspiring young athletes, as exemplified by her accumulation of more than one sportsperson of the year award.

All of these achievements place her amongst the world’s top marketable athletes: in 2020, she became the highest-paid female athlete of all time, and the eighth highest paid athlete in endorsements alone. It does not subsequently seem far-fetched to question the influence of her bankability on the way she has been treated by top tennis governing bodies.

Her professional achievements have evidently not rendered her invincible to personal pressures. Following her announcement that she would not be conducting the traditional, mandatory post-match press conferences, Osaka revealed in a statement on social media that she has suffered from long periods of depression and social anxiety since her pivotal 2018 victory.

Her public statement over the Bank Holiday therefore seemed to signify a brave prioritisation of her well-being, an exercise of ‘self-care’ as she put it herself, which would allow her to channel her energy into her on-court endeavours.

Athletes have periodically excused themselves from post-match interviews, recently including current world no.1, Novak Djokovic. A routine fine is issued to all athletes who fail to fulfil their contracted engagements in this way, so Osaka’s fine of $15,000 had been both anticipated and expected.

What followed this however was wholly unexpected: a joint open letter from the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, warning Osaka that continued evasions of her media responsibilities could lead to increased fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.

It is true that the primary aim of media engagements, regardless of match outcomes, is to generate positive opportunities for athletes to give their personal reflections on their performances, and foster more intimate interactions with their fan-base. However, Osaka’s case should remind us of the human nature of all of these athletes. So why has she been vilified for putting herself first?

Losing gracefully forms a huge part of good sportsmanship, but we would do well to remember athletes often face interviews in their most vulnerable states, both emotionally and physically. While avid fans undoubtedly anticipate the chance to hear players speak one-on-one with media outlets, it goes without saying that Osaka’s decision to prioritise her well-being should not have rendered her vulnerable to condemnation.

She has since voiced her hope that her withdrawal will allow everyone to ‘get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,’ but this selfless act should not have been one she felt obliged to make.

Her decision should prompt pause for thought – and action – as institutions such as the International Tennis Federation are traditional but perhaps rapidly becoming, if not already, outdated. The relationship between athletes, the media, and issues of mental health, needs to be reconsidered and renegotiated, to create the most productive environment, which prioritises athletes’ well-being above all else.

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