I am so sad about Naomi Osaka,” tweeted Martina Navratilova. “I truly hope she will be OK.”
Navratilova was referring to the young Japanese-Haitian tennis star’s sudden decision on 31 May to withdraw from the French Open (the second of tennis’s four grand slams). Osaka’s departure from the tournament, which began on 30 May and will conclude on 13 June, came after she was fined $15,000 by the official organisers following her decision not to attend press conferences because of their adverse effect on her mental health.
Countless tennis fans all over the world must share Navratilova’s sentiments; some may share my feelings that once again, just as with the debacle of football’s European Super League, an elite sporting body has behaved in a way that shows scant regard for anything except money. In this case that includes the mental well-being of an immensely talented young athlete who admitted to suffering “long bouts of depression” following her victory over Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open (the first of the four grand slams she has won so far).
Tennis aficionados will remember that Osaka’s victory on that September day was overshadowed by the controversial umpiring of Carlos Ramos and the histrionics of the losing finalist. Osaka, instead of celebrating her triumph, ended up in tears and even apologised for winning. I am not sure I can imagine any other of the sport’s greats doing that (though Roger Federer has come close).
Osaka will be missed over the next couple of weeks in Paris, not just for the awesome power and grace of her groundstrokes but also, ironically enough, for the extraordinary candour of the thoughts she shares after matches. For this thoughtful, clever, politically engaged, endearingly kooky young athlete, who admits that press conferences cause her “huge waves of anxiety”, gives the best press conferences ever.
Not for her the yawn-inducing platitudes favoured by most players (following the Rafael Nadal “It’s amazing to have the trophy with me again” school). Osaka’s speciality is the existential answer to the mundane question. Quizzed about problems with her serve, she replied: “I was double-faulting so much I said, ‘Please, Jesus, if you’re real…’” The question “Do you feel you’re overly critical of yourself?” was met first by a burst of laughter, then by, “Is that a personal attack? I do actually.” Asked about what she’d learned from her coach, she answered: “I think I forgot everything he told me. Or everything he told me I already knew. I feel like I’m slandering him.”
Other Osaka classics include “I forgot the rest of your question” (in answer to an enquiry so pedestrian it was a wonder she had recalled the first part) and “You kind of answered your own question” – the perfect riposte to a sally of self-basting banality.
Osaka is highly unusual among tennis players in taking overt political stances. She is an active and articulate supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the US Open last year – which she won, defeating Victoria Azarenka – she wore a sequence of black face masks, each illustrated with the name of a black American victim of racial injustice.
Earlier in the year she withdrew from her semi-final match in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati following the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer. She made this statement: “Before I am an athlete I am a black woman. And as a black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
The similarly selfless phrasing of Osaka’s announcement that she was withdrawing from the French Open showed once again why she is such an unusual young woman as well as an exceptional tennis player – ranked the second best woman in the world. “I think 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,” Osaka said. Unfortunately, her withdrawal may have the opposite effect to the one
All the same, the first and most urgent concern must be for Osaka’s mental health. Many sporting stars suffer from depression and other mental health issues, but few talk about them in the way she has. That in itself is brave and hopeful. Her fellow black tennis player, the remarkable American teenager Coco Gauff (whom Osaka has admitted she doesn’t like losing to because of having “an age problem – I don’t like losing to people younger than me”) tweeted: “Stay strong. I admire your vulnerability.”
And what can one say of the French Tennis Federation and its president Gilles Moretton? His response to Osaka leaving the tournament was to deliver a statement from a press room wishing her “the quickest possible recovery” – as if she were suffering from an ankle strain rather than a long-running and serious mental health issue – and then to leave without fielding a single question.
Even if he’d stayed, it’s unlikely his answers would have been a fraction as interesting as those glimpses into her soul that Osaka offers with the minimum of artifice and the maximum of honesty. And, in any case, marvellous though they are, those should surely be considered an optional extra to the brilliance of her tennis.
What a tragedy it would be if another tennis career of such promise were to be cut short because, to quote Martina Navratilova once more, “as athletes we are taught to take care of our bodies, and perhaps the mental and emotional health aspect gets short shrift”.
Harry Eyres is the co-author of “Johnson’s Brexit Dictionary” (Pushkin Press)
This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West