Mental-health advocate Naomi Osaka is back at the French Open: 'For the most part, I think I'm OK.'
By Rachel Koning Beals
The former No. 1 and highest-earning female athlete last year accepted a fine for skipping the media events that elevate the lucrative sport -- a cost she deemed necessary to protect her mental health
That's popular tennis star Naomi Osaka, capping a thoughtful 18-minute press conference at Roland Garros Friday, site of her abrupt withdrawal a year earlier when she put her mental health ahead of the world's expectations.
The tournament, part of professional tennis's Grand Slam, begins Sunday.
At last year's French, the Japanese pro who grew up in the U.S. declared she would avoid talking to the press, earning a $15,000 fine. She then withdrew before the second round, emphasizing it's "OK to not feel OK" and it's even more important to admit it.
Osaka also sat out Wimbledon and took another break from the highest levels of elite tennis after an early exit at the 2021 U.S. Open. But Osaka, who owns four Grand Slam titles, returned to the big stage in January at the Australian Open. She lost in the third round there to Amanda Anisimova, a 20-year-old American who just happens to be Osaka's first opponent in Paris.
Osaka's ranking has fallen to No. 38, mostly because of a lack of action. Still, she is the world's highest-paid female athlete, according to a list published by Forbes, dated January. She raked in $57.3 million in prize money and endorsements over the past year.
"I'm not going to lie. When I first came here, I was very worried," she told reporters Friday in Paris. "I was just kind of worried if there would be people that -- of course, I also didn't like how I handled the situation -- but I was worried that there were people that I offended some way, and I would just kind of bump into them."
She said the atmosphere generally feels supportive.
"I think everyone has been really positive, for the most part. I'm not really so sure. I was also very worried about this press conference, because I knew I'd get a lot of questions about this," she added.
Osaka also admitted she felt different talking to the media now, and that she felt "funnier" and looser than last year.
"I feel like the thing that's changed, me trying to figure out the crowd," she said. "I feel like I'm a stand-up comedian, and I'm trying to figure out what's okay and what's not okay."
For sure, the pressure isn't ever really off. In March, Osaka was brought to tears after being heckled at Indian Wells.
Before the 2021 French Open, Osaka said media appearances can create self-doubt that hurts her game, and impairs her overall health. Osaka has shared on Instagram that she has suffered long bouts of depression since her U.S. Open win in 2018. She also explained she has social anxiety, and so often wears headphones during tournaments.
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In addition to the French fine last year, Osaka also was threatened by all four Grand Slam tournaments of possible additional punishment, including disqualification or suspension. But she also received waves of support after the French Open decision, as well as some critique from sports analysts who emphasized that press duties are part of the responsibility to viewers and sponsors.
Notably, her actions have helped make mental health care more common among athletes and society at large.
Simone Biles, perhaps the world's greatest gymnast ever, pulled herself out of several events at the Tokyo Olympics in July. She was repeatedly becoming disoriented during the complex turns and flips she might typically pull off without a hitch.
"Physical health," she wrote on Instagram at the time, "is mental health."
The buzz around pressure on young, and very young, athletes isn't likely to die down soon. Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz remains a key figure in tennis. In fact, much of the sport has tagged him as a future champion. For now, he looks to build on recent success for a first-round appearance in Paris.
The Associated Press contributed.
-Rachel Koning Beals
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 21, 2022 14:39 ET (18:39 GMT)
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