Last week, Naomi Osaka, the women’s tennis world no. 2 opted out of post-match press conferences, citing their negative impact on her mental health. There is a long history of female tennis players being subject to inappropriate questioning by journalists, this latest decision by Osaka and her subsequent withdrawal from Roland Garros brings into question a discussion around physical vs. mental health in sport.
Players such as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams have elected to not partake in press conferences on the day they were supposed to attend, however this pre-planned non-attendance by Osaka is the first in history.
Questions around sports players autonomy, inevitably comes into question here. There is much discussion around Osaka’s press 'snub' and withdrawal that suggests her reasoning is not ‘enough’. However, the discourse would surely be very different if a player had been physically injured.
Osaka points out this gap in the industries’ treatment of physical vs. mental health saying, “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
Osaka finished this point saying, “if the organisations 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 centrepiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”
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Who are press conferences really for?
If a sportsperson believes their interactions with press may have a negative impact on their ability to perform, as well as their mental health, especially if they have had negative experiences in the past, surely there needs to be some kind of provision to allow for those players to bypass their requirements – so that they can keep playing and engaging in the sport in a way that is not damaging to them, instead of having to withdraw entirely as Osaka has been forced to do.
In 2018’s US Open, Osaka had a huge win over Serena Williams during what turned out to be a pretty controversial match due to several apparent code violations on the part of Williams. Since then, the press has been latched onto the idea of pitting the two players against each other, with one male journalist claiming “Apparently you’re unable to win a slam without some drama” shortly after, at the Australian Open.
Instances such as the aforementioned, as well as unnecessary and at times wildly inappropriate comments about female players appearance are undoubtedly going to result in frustration and impact mental health.
Since Osaka’s initial statement, she has followed up with another statement on her social media addressing the tidal wave of coverage the incident has had: “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer” but went on to say “I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.” Osaka’s sister has since come to her defence stating that Osaka was “not OK mentally” in a Reddit post.
The French Tennis Federation (TFTF) has come down extremely harsh on Osaka. In comparison to Williams and Djokovic’s fines of $3,000 and $7,500 respectively at the US Open, Osaka was fined €12,301 which is much closer to the maximum of $20K that grand slams are allowed to fine players for refusing to attend mandatory press conferences.
Osaka's stand is a pivotal moment in prioritising mental health in sport
The issue at the heart of TFTF’s treatment of Osaka as well as many of the gripes present in the discourse around her actions comes down to fulfilling a contract. As a sportsperson you are required to fulfil certain appearances, sponsorship events etc, which when you really boil it down the conversation quickly stops being about the person and more about the money they are going to make organisations, companies, stakeholders etc.
In many ways, this has lifted a curtain on just how far behind the world of tennis, along with many other sports, is when it comes to safeguarding the individual and their mental health rather than treating them like a commodity. Whilst the personal stance of Osaka herself, marks a change in attitudes from those in the spotlight, where prioritising mental health is an unapologetic necessity.