The dramatic withdrawal of tennis star Naomi Osaka from the French Open after a row with tournament authorities over post-match press duties has highlighted how a new generation of top athletes is challenging the power of the tournaments they work for and calling for social change.
Announcing her decision, number two Osaka, the world’s highest-paid athlete, revealed that she had been battling depression and said she was taking care of herself by avoiding questioning that amounted to “kicking someone when she’s down.”
“The truth is I’ve had long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018, and I’ve had a really hard time dealing with that,” Osaka wrote on Twitter, adding that she would be taking a break from the sport for an indefinite period. .
“So here in Paris I was really feeling weak and anxious, so I thought it was better to practice self-care and skip press conferences . . . I feel like the rules are outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”
The episode reverberated across the world of sport as it highlights the transformation of my generation between athletes willing to comply with established standards set by sporting authorities, and young players willing to engage in social activism and speak directly to fans on social media.
Many sports stars crowded behind the city of Osaka. NBA star Stephen Curry expressed his “great respect” to Osaka for “going down the highway when the powers that be themselves aren’t protecting.” Tennis champion Serena Williams said she wishes she could hug Osaka because she knows what it would be like to face the pressures of the game, while women’s tennis pioneer Billie Jean King said she was “incredibly brave”.
The French Open and other “Grand Slam” tennis tournaments require players to participate in post-match press conferences, with traditional media access to players being one of the primary ways in which organizers promote their events on television and in the press.
But some players doubted the usefulness of such appearances. Osaka was fined $15,000 for not appearing in front of the media after her first-round victory on Sunday and faced harsher penalties, including the possibility of being expelled from the tournament.
In her initial statement on May 26 that she would not be giving interviews during the tournament, she did not disclose her mental health issues. It remains unclear if the tournament was informed of them prior to the withdrawal.
The four Grand Slam tournaments said in a joint statement four days later that they had tried to “talk to [Osaka] To check its integrity and understand the details of its problem and what can be done to address it on site.”
Shortly thereafter, the French Open posted a tweet praising players such as Spain’s Rafael Nadal and America’s Coco Gauff for attending press conferences, writing: “They get the job done.” It was later deleted.
On Tuesday, Gil Moreton, president of the French Tennis Federation, made a more conciliatory note, saying: “First of all, we are sorry and saddened to Naomi Osaka. We wish her the best and fastest possible recovery…and to remain deeply committed to the well-being of all athletes.”
The new era of sports activism kicked off in 2016 when NFL player Colin Kaepernick injured a knee while playing the US national anthem before games in protest of police brutality, for which he was effectively expelled from the league.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic have given players from the US National Basketball Association to the Premier League new urgency to advocate publicly on the issues they care about. This has led to a reckoning within the sport’s governing bodies, which rely on the power of top athletes’ stars to attract fans and direct the business.
The 24-year-old Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father in Japan and raised there and in the United States, was in At the forefront of this transformation. Last year she appeared in court at the US Open wearing masks emblazoned with the names of black victims of police brutality in the US, including Breonna Taylor.
Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner, is the world’s highest-paid female athlete, according to Forbes, earning $37 million in 2020, primarily through sponsors including Nike, All Nippon Airways and Nissan.
She was expected to compete in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, with organizers pinning their hopes on Osaka bringing glory to the host nation. It is not yet clear when she will return to court.
In Japan, where Osaka has a passionate fan base, her withdrawal from the French Open reached the country’s highest political level.
We should keep a calm watch on the situation for now [until she recovers]said Katsunobu Kato, Chief Cabinet Secretary.
Sports marketing expert Tim Crowe noted that corporate sponsors have become increasingly uncomfortable with post-match press conferences and their often hostile tone.
“It’s part of the job . . . but like all of these things, we’re in a world where people start questioning these standards, asking ‘Is there a better way to do these things?’ interest of the athletes. We’re talking about sports here, it doesn’t cure cancer, it’s not life or death.”