Osaka sparks vital discussion by pulling out of French Open

It is unfortunate that Naomi Osaka is out of a major tennis tournament as a result of a controversy off the court, rather than an all-out performance on it.

Osaka withdrew from the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments. She said she had been suffering from bouts of depression since winning her first Grand Slam at the 2018 U.S. Open, and decided that she would skip post-match press conferences at Roland Garros to avoid feeling more stress.

It was just before the start of the French Open that Osaka announced on her Twitter account that she would not take part in any press conferences during the tournament. She described the Grand Slam regulation that makes it mandatory for players to take part in media interviews even after they lose as having “no regard for athletes mental health.”

When organizers threatened her with possible expulsion, among other consequences, Osaka tweeted that “anger is a lack of understanding.” The star’s sudden confession of her suffering from depression certainly surprised many fans. Most of all, it is hoped that Osaka will recover and return to the court.

Under Grand Slam regulations, athletes must attend post-match press conferences win or lose, as long as they are not injured or ill. Osaka was fined $15,000 (about ¥1.65 million) for refusing to engage with the media after her first-round win, in accordance with the rules.

It is because of the fans and sponsors that the players can enter tournaments and win large amounts of prize money. Attending press conferences is considered part of the job, and some players were initially confused by Osaka’s remarks.

Fans wanted to see Osaka perform to the fullest on court as the world’s No. 2-ranked player. It can be described as an unhappy ending for both the organizers and the star herself that she was forced to pull out like this.

Tennis is an individual sport, which means players often struggle with pressure on their own. Osaka has so far attracted attention for her remarks on racism and other social issues. The star may have been burdened by the extent of her influence.

Nowadays, more and more athletes use social media to get their messages out. This is a welcome trend in itself, but the controversy between the organizers and Osaka might not have become so serious if the two sides had directly spoken to each other.

Even so, this controversy has cast a spotlight on the mental health of athletes. Rules must be followed, but they have to be reviewed if they become outdated.

How should information be dispensed when it comes to sports events? Have there not been cases of the media offending the dignity of athletes at press conferences? It is important for organizers, athletes and the media to have full discussions on how to realize a better sporting environment.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on June 3, 2021.