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Jane McManus: Osaka's Silence Speaks Volumes

Sports ask a lot of the men and women who would be champions: An uncompromising focus, relentless training and to always, always be put first.

Naomi Osaka refused to play along this week when she withdrew from the French Open, citing concern for her mental health when the tournament mandated she attend the post-match press conferences, like every other player. She skipped a few, and when the backlash hit, she decided it was enough and packed up.

It is difficult to know exactly what Osaka is going through. She is such a light in tennis, a cutting sense of humor and self-deprecating sensibility, combined with a devastating forehand.

But no one in tennis wants a French Open without her, or a Wimbledon or a US Open…

Ironically, in lamenting her withdrawal, Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, read a statement and then declined to take questions.

The lack of courage in his convictions was not inspiring.

Osaka said that she has faced bouts with depression since 2018, when she erupted onto the tennis stage by defeating Serena Williams at the US Open. You may remember the match, when a frustrated Williams was penalized a game, and argued with the chair umpire.

It was an emotional final for both players. And tennis is a sport that thrives on player emotion. You can take it all the way back to John McEnroe and his angry outbursts on the court, to the ecstatic collapse when a player wins a Grand Slam for the first time.

Sports is a place where emotion has to be channeled into the arena. Right?

Outside of competition, we expect athletes to be quite robotically going through the motions of practice and branding. Nutrition, sleep, physical therapy – everything is controlled. Things like doubt, melancholy and unhappiness must be packed up and shipped off in the name of greatness.

But of course, that is an illusion. Athletes like swimmer Michael Phelps and the NFL’s Brandon Marshall have openly talked about mental health. We only learn what players really thought when they have retired and written books.

Last year Osaka used her platform to advocate for Black Lives Matters. She wore facemasks bearing the names of Black people who had been shot or killed by police, and when Jacob Blake was shot in Wisconsin, she refused to play a semifinal the next day. The Western & Southern delayed the match by a day.

Now she is addressing another issue. It’s a good time for us all to think about this, when a pandemic has made our lives smaller. Not everyone deals with pressure in the same way, and it has been more difficult for some, and in particular young people.

Osaka is 23 and earned an estimated $55 million last year in the sport that is without question the most lucrative for women. Part of the reason such a haul is possible – the time at the podium by women who came before her. Billie Jean King herself said this week, as she empathized with Osaka, that press coverage spurs interest in tennis. In women’s sports, where coverage has often had to be cajoled from male sports editors, the margin for error is thin. Why send a reporter if the marquee players are unavailable?

Press conferences may be challenging for players to negotiate at times, and there have certainly been barbed questions for athletes over the years. A question that is easy for one player to flick away may stick with another.

Here is hoping that the WTA and Grand Slams are working with Osaka now to find the right resources and address processes that can be modified.

Because her voice needs to be heard.

Jane McManus is director of the Center for Sports Communication at Marist College.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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