Naomi Osaka and mental health in sport: What next after French Open stance?

By Sports Desk June 03, 2021

Naomi Osaka's shock withdrawal from the French Open has raised questions over news conferences and their impact on mental health for athletes.

Osaka pulled out of Roland Garros on Monday, a day after tournament organisers fined the four-time grand slam champion and threatened her with more severe sanctions for refusing to attend mandatory media conferences.

The 23-year-old world number two and Japanese star had opened up about her mental health problems, revealing in a statement she has had "long bouts of depression" since claiming the 2018 US Open.

While her WTA and ATP Tour colleagues voiced their support, Osaka's stance has sparked controversy, though more importantly it has highlighted the growing issue of mental health problems in sport.

"I think it's a very important stance because it really highlights how sport has really looked at challenging issues through either the paradigm of sport or business," World Players Association executive director Brendan Schwab told Stats Perform. "Here, there is a very simple rule put in place that athletes have to attend post-match media conferences in order to promote visibility around the sport and then to promote the commercial interests of the sport. But that rule is put in place without any due diligence being done as to the risks with that on athletes or athlete health and safety.

"If we look at health and safety, we have to look at not only physical health but mental health and wellbeing. There is a very clear rule but it's going to impact athletes differently. The tournament organisers and sports bodies need to understand they have this proactive duty and to be aware of those impacts, and where their rule is going to have a harmful impact, they need to just adjust their procedures and requirements accordingly."

German great Boris Becker voiced his concerns for Osaka's future following her decision to quit the French Open in Paris.

A six-time slam winner, Becker told Eurosport: "I always believed the media was part of the job. Without the media, there is no prize money, no contracts, you don't get half the cake. I hated the media and I didn't like talking to journalists, but you had to do it.

"Now she is pulling out of the tournament altogether because she can't cope with it and that raises much bigger questions for me. If she can't cope with the media in Paris, she can't cope with the media in Wimbledon or the US Open. So I almost feel like her career is in danger due to mental health issues."

It is a view shared by many past and present tennis players – news conferences are part and parcel of the job. But are they?

"I think everyone would agree that is an important part of the job, but certainly not an essential part. The essential part of the job is performing as a player. But we cannot ask people to perform in circumstances where it's unsafe. It may be safe for some and unsafe for others," said Schwab.

"As in this case, there is an understanding that a particular player has a pre-condition or certain vulnerability, not to respond to that is inexcusable. It's certainly no defence to say it's safe for other people. That is why we need a real deep understanding of mental health.

"It's really important to see it as an occupational issue. A sporting place is not an ordinary workplace. It is a workplace which has heightened pressure. Therefore, the likelihood of there being adverse mental health impacts are greater. It's not going to affect everyone equally and sports bodies need to be smart enough to understand that fact."

Schwab added: "For Naomi's incredibly courageous stance here, there will be other players for which withdrawal is not an option and they will continue to face the workplace and pressures associated with that and therefore exacerbating the harm they're already experiencing."

The World Players Association is the leading voice of organised players in the governance of world sport. It brings together 85,000 players across professional sport through more than 100 player associations in over 60 countries.

As mental health becomes more prevalent in a professional sports environment amid the growing physical and emotional demands, Schwab said: "What our Players Associations do is they run player development and wellbeing programmes. The more sophisticated of those programmes would actually have employees and experts who are engaged by the player associations but often based in the teams or club environment, so the players know they can access them, they are proximate to the players so they can access tailored advice and support.

"Mental health is one of those things but there are many other issues that players will have to deal with. The athletic career itself is short-term and precarious, so there is constant effort being made to ensure players are developing holistically, they're pursuing education and other opportunities."

As Schwab voiced his disapproval of the "blanket rule" to post-match commitments, the Australian shed light on how the World Players Association prepares athletes for the media.

"Certainly part of our development programmes, we will provide what we call induction programmes so that the players go through what they will expect in terms of their athletic career, so they can excel as athletes and in the job," he said. "Clearly, dealing with the media is a very important part of those programmes, but you have to be really careful to ensure this isn't a 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Player associations have a common interest with sports bodies to maximise the interest in the sport and commercial viability so the players can share in their wealth, but the impact is dispiriting.

"If we look at the way players are being trained physically, physical loads are being tailored based on the individual athletic capacity of certain players. Physical health is not the only health and safety concern we have to be worried about. Players have different vulnerabilities in terms of mental health and therefore it makes absolute sense for sports bodies to tailor their commitments, so they don't unnecessarily expose more vulnerable players than others. A blanket rule, like in this case, where athletes feel vulnerable and are at risk of an adverse health consequence should not be imposed.

"I really do believe the tournament organisers, Roland Garros in particular, exacerbated that harm when they started to promote the fact that other players were comfortable to do the press conferences in order to put pressure on Naomi, and clearly that has proven to be incredibly counterproductive… if the starting point is not a recognition of their proactive duty to provide a safe workplace and that safe workplace means understanding the physical, mental and the wellbeing risks holistically and then tailoring for the particular needs of players individually, then these kind of problems will likely reoccur."

Related items

  • Wimbledon: Doubles delight as Venus Williams and Jamie Murray thrill late-night crowd Wimbledon: Doubles delight as Venus Williams and Jamie Murray thrill late-night crowd

    Venus Williams rolled back the years as she teamed up with Jamie Murray to add another Wimbledon victory to her collection.

    The five-time All England Club singles champion and six-time women's doubles winner turned 42 years old a fortnight ago, and this year marks 25 years since her Wimbledon singles debut.

    Williams had been inactive on tour since last August's Chicago Open, with many doubting she would play again, but the American great showed flashes of brilliance alongside British doubles expert Murray in a 6-3 6-7 (3-7) 6-3 victory over Michael Venus of New Zealand and Poland's Alicja Rosolska.

    Some 24 years on from the season when she and Justin Gimelstob landed the Australian Open and French Open mixed doubles titles, Williams thrilled the Court One crowd with her energetic play at times, showing only a hint of rust.

    The match was not initially allocated a specific court, as organisers hoped play on a show court would end early to allow for it to be added to the programme.

    That panned out ideally, meaning a busy stadium crowd got to see Williams and five-time grand slam mixed doubles champion Murray pair up for a late-evening tussle, three years after their siblings Serena Williams and Andy Murray also joined forces at Wimbledon.

  • Wimbledon: Mother of all shocks as Sakkari slumps to Tatjana Maria Wimbledon: Mother of all shocks as Sakkari slumps to Tatjana Maria

    Tatjana Maria bumped Maria Sakkari out of Wimbledon as the German who once played at the All England Club while pregnant condemned the Greek star to a stunning exit.

    Mum-of-two Maria dazzled in a 6-3 7-5 victory over the fifth seed, reaching round four of a grand slam for the first time in her career. She had suffered eight successive first-round losses in slams until this week's turnaround, last getting a win at the 2018 US Open.

    The inspired Maria revelled on the Court Two big stage, becoming the oldest German woman in the Open Era, which began in 1968, to make it through to the last-16 stage of a major.

    At the age of 34 years and 228 days, world number 103 Maria is also the oldest woman remaining in the Wimbledon singles this year.

    Sakkari lost in two tight sets to Maria at the Australian Open in January, but the roles were reversed this time, the impressive German landing a fifth career win over a top-10 player.

    Husband and coach Charles-Edouard Maria watched from the stands, while their daughters, eight-year-old Charlotte and one-year-old Cecilia, played in a nearby creche.

    Maria said in an on-court interview: "I came here with my two kids for the first time. I was so happy to be in the main draw. I love to play on grass. It's such a special place for me. One year, when I was in my first pregnancy, I played pregnant.

    "I love to play Wimbledon and to make this happen with my family there are no words for this, only joy and only happiness."

    She said her daughters were probably "jumping in front of the TV", and spoke of wanting to set a positive example for her tennis-playing elder daughter.

    "I try to be really a role model for my daughter, because she will be the next champion, so I try to show her the best way possible," Maria added. "I cannot wait to go over to the creche now and see my kids."

    Neither Maria nor Sakkari had ever gone beyond round three at Wimbledon, with this the one grand slam where the Greek world number five has not reached the last-16 stage.

    Maria was one of three mothers in the draw, the WTA said, along with Serena Williams and Yanina Wickmayer, both of whom made early exits. The next test for Maria will be posed by big-hitting Latvian Jelena Ostapenko.

  • Wimbledon: Djokovic takes his tennis 'up a notch' as he serves up Centre Court drubbing Wimbledon: Djokovic takes his tennis 'up a notch' as he serves up Centre Court drubbing

    Novak Djokovic warned Wimbledon title pretenders his game is improving with every round as he eased past fellow Serbian Miomir Kecmanovic on Centre Court.

    Defending champion Djokovic won 6-0 6-3 6-4 in one hour and 53 minutes to book a last-16 clash with Dutch wild card Tim van Rijthoven.

    The 20-time grand slam winner will carry out due diligence on Wimbledon rookie Van Rijthoven, who is through to the fourth round on his debut and has reeled off eight successive wins.

    Van Rijthoven won the Rosmalen Grass Court Championships in the lead-up to this fortnight, stunning world number one Daniil Medvedev in the final.

    Yet on the form that saw Djokovic crush Kecmanovic's hopes, Van Rijthoven will surely stand little hope of going any deeper into the tournament.

    Djokovic won 88 per cent of points when landing his first serve in court, and he has now reached the fourth round at Wimbledon on 14 occasions, a performance only beaten in men's singles by Roger Federer (18) and Jimmy Connors (16).

    "I thought I started off very, very well, very strong with a lot of good intensity, good focus," Djokovic said in an on-court interview.

    "Honestly, I think I've been playing better and better as the tournament progresses, so that's something you wish for as a player, that every match you play you raise a level of tennis up a notch, at least, and I think that's what is happening at the moment.

    "I know I can always do better, I always expect the highest from myself, and so far, so good, and I'm looking forward to the next challenge."

    Data slam: Familiarity breeds familiar outcome

    The battle of these Davis Cup team-mates was always unlikely to go the way of the 25th seed, and so it proved that Kecmanovic could not cope with the animal that Centre Court brings out in Djokovic.

    This was a third career meeting in tournament action for the pair, with both previous encounters having come at the Serbia Open. Kecmanovic took the opener against Djokovic before slumping to defeat when they played in Belgrade in April, but this was a rout, the 22-year-old underdog trampled.

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS
    Djokovic – 36/19
    Kecmanovic– 13/27

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS
    Djokovic – 6/4
    Kecmanovic – 1/5

    BREAK POINTS WON
    Djokovic - 6/12
    Kecmanovic - 1/4

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.