Naomi Osaka fiasco is a sign we’re a long way from finishing the work on mental health

And Naomi Osaka has had enough. She has faced countless opponents on her stratospheric rise to the top of tennis, but this week the world No.2 put down her racquet and stepped away from polls and press incitement.

Such press conferences are a “vulture pit,” said Kris Soutar, consultant for Tennis Scotland and the Judy Murray Foundation, founded by the mother of Andy Murray, a player who has spoken openly about how the mental toll elite sport affected him.

These often male-dominated press conferences are extremely intimidating for the losing player, Soutar told CNN. “They are being asked why they lost, and reporters are looking for their own little bits of dirt,” he said.

It’s a disheartening prospect for any athlete, let alone Osaka, who admitted on Twitter that she was “not a natural public speaker and was causing huge waves of anxiety before I do not speak to the media of the world “.

Nike supports Naomi Osaka after her withdrawal from Roland Garros

So, the four-time grand prize winner made the dramatic decision to avoid press conferences altogether, citing mental health reasons, in the hope that any fines incurred would go to a mental health charity.

In response, the organizers fined Osaka $ 15,000 and threatened with eviction. Osaka in turn withdrew from the tournament, saying on Twitter that she hoped “everyone can focus on the tennis taking place in Paris.”

The 23-year-old added that she had “suffered from long bouts of depression” since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018.

Following Osaka’s decision to step down from his media duties, the French Open posted a tweet – which it has since deleted – with photos of Rafael Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff engaging in media functions with the caption: the task. “

This response was “cold” and a “missed opportunity” to “pioneer” and find solutions to mental health issues in sport, Soutar said.

Naomi Osaka is a four-time Grand Slam champion.

Participate in the age of Covid

Tennis was one of the first professional sports to emerge from the shadow of Covid lockdowns around the world.

But with more pressing issues, especially economic ones, mental health “has not been high on the tour’s agenda,” according to Rodney Rapson, co-owner of Base Tennis Academy near Frankfurt, Germany.

“The industry as a whole is suffering financially, because of the cancellations, the sponsorship, everything has taken a hit,” Rapson said of Covid’s impact on sport.

Meanwhile, the Covid restrictions have exacerbated the stress of traveling tennis pros. Before players even reach the pitch, there’s a seemingly endless list of tests, travel restrictions, quarantine and social bubbles to join in, said Daria Abramowicz, sports psychologist for Polish player Iga Swiatek. .

This tightly restricted environment “really affects relationships, it affects stress levels, it affects overall emotional well-being,” according to Abramowicz.

She added that “we have never seen so many dropouts, tournament dropouts, injuries, strains,” which Abramowicz attributes to a “Covid effect” on tennis.

Abramowicz hopes the Osaka pullout could “be a game-changer” for discussions about mental health in sport.

“There’s this stereotype that an athlete is some kind of gladiator, kind of a hero,” Abramowicz told CNN.

“That they’re comfortable outside of their comfort zone. And it’s next to impossible for athletes not to be well.”

Naomi Osaka prepares for the French Open in a practice match against Ashleigh Barty of Australia.

Culture change

Osaka’s decision to decline press conferences has infuriated some media commentators.

British broadcaster Piers Morgan called the tennis player a “petulant little lady.” And journalist Will Swanton wrote in The Australian: “Naomi Osaka’s immaturity, preciousness and hypocrisy leaves me speechless.”

Meanwhile, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams sympathized with Osaka, saying at a post-match press conference: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. it’s like. As I said, I have held these positions. “

Former great tennis player Billie Jean King drew a trickier line, tweeting: “The media always play an important role in telling our story.”

But the press conference is a different beast from King’s days, experts say, pointing to how social media now offered players a direct line of communication with fans.

Naomi Osaka: Serena Williams Wants to Give World No. 2 a Hug;  others call her a `` princess ''

“So it seems redundant to have a post-game interview in front of a press room where players, especially if they’ve lost, are asked really arbitrary questions that everyone knows the answer to,” Rapson said. , who added: “Players get frustrated very quickly.”

These lectures come right after a game where players are “at the peak of their cognitive and emotional function, and stress levels sometimes skyrocket,” Abramowicz said.

And “when there is this obligation to go and talk about it, not all players are well equipped for it”.

Young players are thrown into the barely prepared international spotlight under scrutiny both in the boardroom and online, experts say.

Rapson also asked if authorities are doing enough to protect players’ mental health given the abuse they often endure online.

“Technology is advancing much faster than the cultural changes in the people who run the sport,” said Rapson, adding that there was a “massive disconnect between the people who sit on the boards of these governing bodies and reality. of how things like social media impact young people. ”

Now, by stepping out of the media spotlight, Osaka has instead highlighted those same pressures.

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