After declining to attend press conferences during the French Open, Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka has pulled out of the prestigious tournament.
Osaka, the best-paid female athlete in the world, said she decided to skip the media appearances in Paris out of concerns for her mental health. She said she had been struggling with bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open.
“I’m not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” the 23-year-old player said in an Instagram post on Monday.
Her announcement came a day after she was charged with a $15,000 penalty for not meeting her media obligations and threatened with expulsion from the tournament.
Julia Elbaba, a sports journalist and former WTA player, said she was disappointed in Osaka’s withdrawal but not surprised. She said if Osaka was struggling with her mental health, she shouldn’t have played in the tournament at all so that another tennis player could have competed.
Being a professional tennis player is “a lonely, cruel journey,” she told VICE World News.
“There is no question they have some social anxiety,” said Elbaba, who competed against Osaka and her sister Mari in local New York tournaments when they were 10 to 12 years old.
“On TV, you see a player winning a grand slam, receiving a beautiful trophy and massive paycheck, but you never see the blood, sweat and tears getting there.”
Osaka said the tennis press has “always been kind” to her, but the press conferences have clearly taken a toll on the second-ranked women’s tennis player.
“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds,” she wrote in a May 27 post. “I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”
Here are a few exchanges that stood out:
1. “I feel like I’m about to cry”
After the first round at the 2019 Wimbledon tournament, Osaka was probed by reporters about her loss to Kazakh tennis player Yulia Putintseva. One reporter asked, “When you play someone who you’ve lost to so recently, how hard is it not to have that in your head?” Another reporter asked, “Do you think because you’re younger, it can be difficult to be consistent at this age?”
Osaka replied, “I wouldn’t blame my age on anything. I’ve done a lot of good things and I’ve done a lot of bad things, but I’m not the type of person who would say because I’m young, I can get away with doing certain things.”
When asking Osaka how she would deal with her loss, the same reporter said, “How do you go about restoring your confidence after this? What do you do over the next few days to pick yourself up?”
Osaka, who was 21 at the time, answered: “I don’t know. There are answers to questions that you guys ask that I don’t know, that I still haven’t figured out yet.”
About four minutes into the press conference, Osaka told one of the organizers that “I feel like I’m about to cry.” She was then escorted out of the main interview room.
2. Questions of identity
As a Japanese athlete of mixed Japanese and Haitian descent, Osaka has also faced scrutiny about her identity, perhaps to a greater degree than white male tennis players. Her ethnicity has prompted questions of how “Japanese” she may be and she’s been asked by various outlets to exhibit her bilingual skills.
Most notably after a match against Czech tennis player Petra Kvitová in the 2019 Australian Open, a Japanese presenter asked Osaka whether she could “tell us, in Japanese, how difficult it was to deal with? Just one word about how you felt.”
The athlete calmly declined and said, “I’m going to answer in English.”
After the 2018 U.S. Open, one reporter asked how Osaka’s last name could be the same as the city she was born in. “Your last name is Osaka, you were born in Osaka, which is a bit strange because your father is a Haitian. So, how come that your last name is the same name of the city, but your father—you should have the last name of your father,” he said.
A smiling Osaka responded, “You ready? We’re recycling a joke from 2014. Everyone who was born in Osaka—their last name is Osaka.”
3. “We can’t wait for that next mask”
Osaka has also received comments about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
To show her solidarity with the social justice movement during last year’s U.S. Open, Osaka wore seven masks for seven matches, each bearing the name of a Black person whose death has been cited in protests across the United States. One reporter took note, in a way that struck some as inappropriate.
During a post-match interview with Osaka, former world No.1 doubles Australian player Rennae Stubbs said she had been “trying to guess what name is going to be on the mask, every single day” and “can’t wait for that next mask.”
Osaka took the comment calmly, though Stubbs received widespread criticism on social media.
Darren Rovell, a sports business reporter at the Action Network, tweeted, “We can’t wait for the next name of a murdered person you put on your mask? I mean, I don’t think any person in the world had that thought. I guess I was wrong.”
Stubbs said she meant well.