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Tennis Needs Naomi Osaka, So Why Aren’t They Acting Like It?

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from the 2021 French Open citing mental health concerns.

Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open this week sent shock waves throughout the sporting world. Osaka, the current world No. 2 on the WTA Tour, cited mental health concerns as her reason for dropping out of the major tournament.

Right after the tourney began, the No. 2-seeded Osaka announced she would not be doing any of the news conferences or media availability required by Roland Garros, stating it was nothing personal with the tournament, but that she feels athletes’ mental health is not taken seriously enough.

“However, if the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation, then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote on social media. “I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”

Osaka won her first match and did not attend her media availability. She was fined $15,000 and threatened with expulsion from future events as a result. The next day, Osaka withdrew from the tournament.

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Osaka praised

The rift is a massive blow to tournament organizers and officials of the other three major tournaments who could not have picked a worse time to be labelled as anti-mental health. Osaka has received widespread praise for her bold actions, and a public dispute with a rising star runs the risk of alienating tennis fans – especially in the United States where the Japan-born, U.S.-raised Osaka is quite popular.

Osaka has had a meteoric rise to the top of the women’s ranks since her 2018 breakout and U.S. Open victory. Since then, she has put herself in exclusive company in women’s tennis.

Grand Slam titles won by active female tennis players

Infographic: Osaka Overtakes Kerber With Fourth Grand Slam Title | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

At age 23, Osaka is already tied for third among active players in Grand Slam victories, as you can see in the above chart provided by Statista. She is the current defending champion at both the U.S. Open and the Australian Open and was in pursuit of her first French Open championship before bowing out. Since the beginning of the 2018 WTA season, she has a record of 110-36 on all surfaces and is 58-10 over the last three years on hardcourt.

Big-time success like that usually comes with a big payday in the sports world, and Osaka’s rise to prominence has been no different.

Highest-paid female athletes

Infographic: The Highest-Paid Female Athletes | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

The chart above, provided by Statista, shows Osaka and fellow tennis star Serena Williams as standouts in earnings in the June 1, 2019, to June 1, 2020, calendar year. With total earnings of around $37.4 million, Osaka broke the record for the most money ever earned by a female athlete in a year. The record was previously held by Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, who made $29.7 million in 2015.

It is also of note that nine of the top 10 biggest earners among female professional athletes were tennis players. The global reach of the sport leads to higher profiles and evidently more money for the game’s biggest stars.

History of speaking out on mental health

It is well documented that Osaka suffers from severe anxiety when faced with public speaking or interviews. Her admitted shyness and empathy for other athletes who suffer from any form of mental illness has been at the forefront of the conversation.

In an interview with Teen Vogue after her 2018 U.S. Open win, Osaka was open about her depression and the types of struggles athletes have to deal with at times.

“You can easily get depressed,” she said. “Usually, if you play sports, you think that one match or one game is very important, and when you lose it, you think your whole world is over. I can see how easily that can turn.”

Osaka’s advocacy has put Grand Slam organizers on notice that they need to start taking players’ mental health seriously. With the world more in tune and sympathetic to mental health concerns than ever before, the optics are terrible for these organizations to discipline players for expressing genuine and valid concerns.

Other players react

Other players have spoken out on the situation as well. French men’s player Gael Monfils expressed his concerns in an interview with ESPN.

“We need Naomi. We need her definitely to be 100 percent,” he said. “We need her back on the court, back (at) the press conference – and back happy.”

The organizers of the four Grand Slams released a statement expressing support for Osaka and stating that they take the issue of mental illness seriously. However, it is hard to believe that statement will suffice in the eyes of Osaka. And given the way professional tennis is structured, she is essentially an independent contractor. That mean she holds a lot of the cards, and it has become quite clear that the organizers need her a lot more than she needs them.