Naomi Osaka leaves French Open after dispute at press conference

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PARIS – The week-long clash between Naomi Osaka, the second-ranked woman in tennis, and the leaders of the sport’s four Grand Slam tournaments turned bitter on Monday when Ms Osaka withdrew from Roland Garros, citing concerns about his sanity.

The move was a dramatic turning point in the high-stakes standoff between tennis’s most powerful officials and Ms. Osaka. The 23-year-old is not just the player of the world highest paid female athlete but also a generational star who quickly became the most magnetic figure in tennis.

“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I am stepping back so that everyone can focus on the tennis which is taking place in Paris,” Ms. Osaka said in a post. Instagram, in she said she struggles with depression and anxiety.

She had never spoken publicly about her depression, which she said began after her 2018 win over Serena Williams at the US Open in front of a boisterous crowd that was firmly behind her opponent.

“I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and that my message could have been clearer,” she added. “The truth is, I have suffered from long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and have struggled to cope with them.” She did not indicate when she would return to the tournament.

It is the first time in professional tennis that a star as important as Ms Osaka who has not suffered a physical injury retires in the middle of an event as big as the French Open, and Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, described his withdrawal as “unfortunate”.

Mr Moretton said in a statement that tournament organizers wished him “the fastest possible recovery.”

“We are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka,” he said. “We remain very committed to the well-being of all athletes and to the continuous improvement of every aspect of the player experience in our tournament, including with the media, as we have always strived to do.

The dispute between Ms Osaka and tournament officials began on Wednesday when she announced that she would not be attending post-match press conferences during the French Open because she said negative questions about his gambling was affecting his sanity. It came to a head on Sunday after her first-round victory, and she kept her promise not to attend the press conference.

Within hours, Ms. Osaka was fined $ 15,000 by the Roland Garros tournament referee, and the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments – Australian, French and US Open, and Wimbledon – threatened that she could be sent off from Roland Garros and face harder. sanctions if it does not fulfill its media obligations.

Ms Osaka described herself in her Instagram post on Monday as an introverted person who suffers from anxiety before having to speak to the press. “Anyone who has seen me at tournaments will notice that I wear headphones a lot as it alleviates my social anxiety,” she wrote.

She said reporters had never been mean to her, but “here in Paris I already felt vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to take care of yourself and skip press conferences. “

Ms Osaka’s sister, Mari, a former professional tennis player, said Naomi Osaka’s anxiety was partly caused by her struggles to win on clay courts like the one at Roland Garros. The press is asking about her sister’s poor performance every time she plays on clay, which hurts her, Mari Osaka said. in an article on Reddit.

By avoiding press conferences, her sister could “block everything.” Don’t talk to people who will put doubt in her mind.

Naomi Osaka said she wrote to tournament officials privately to apologize for the distraction she created and offered to speak to them after the tournament about potentially changing rules forcing players to engage with the media. which she described as “outdated”. Before returning to the tour, she said, she would discuss with tournament officials how to make things better for the players.

This is not the first time Ms Osaka, who rarely grants one-on-one interviews with mainstream media, has taken a public stand on an issue. Last summer, tennis officials suspended play at the Western and Southern Open after the quadruple winner of the Grand Slam tournament announced she would not play her semi-final match to attract attention to the problem of police violence against blacks following the murder of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. , Wis.

Although she skipped her post-match press conference on Sunday, Ms Osaka answered three questions after the game from a field interviewer, Fabrice Santoro, and a few more questions as she left Wowow’s pitch, the Japanese broadcaster with which it is under contract. Ms. Osaka plays for Japan and lives in the United States.

Few of Ms. Osaka’s colleagues have expressed unequivocal support for her position.

“The press and the players and the tournaments go hand in hand,” said Victoria Azarenka, two-time Grand Slam champion. “I think it’s very important in the development of our sport, in the promotion of our sport.” She added that there were times when the media needed to be more compassionate.

Ms Williams has attended many difficult press conferences over the course of her career, but she considers these experiences to have made her stronger. “I feel for Naomi and I wish I could give her a hug because I’ve been in those situations,” said the 23-time Grand Slam winner. “You have to let her handle things the way she wants, in the best possible way.”

Tour officials have long believed that press conferences are an important part of promoting the sport and the athletes themselves. Ms. Osaka questions this assumption.

“If organizations think they can keep saying, ‘Lobby or you are going to be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes who are the centerpiece of their cooperation, then I just have to laugh.” , she wrote on social media on Wednesday.

Last week, the WTA Tour said it welcomed a dialogue with Ms Osaka on mental health, but maintained its position on players’ press obligations. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, which allows them to share their perspective and tell their story,” said the WTA.

Ms. Osaka is certainly not the only elite athlete to have recognized mental health issues. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps has spoken openly about his struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. NBA player Kevin Love has spoken of a panic attack during a game. Data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes have suffered from a mental health crisis, such as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety, according to Athletes for Hope, a group that seeks to involve athletes in charitable causes.

Although tournament officials gave Ms Osaka a platform to demonstrate her beliefs last summer, this time the executives of the sport’s most prestigious events have refused to bow.

In the statement signed by Jayne Hrdlicka, Head of Tennis Australia; Mr. Moretton, President of the French Tennis Federation; Ian Hewitt, President of the All England Lawn Tennis Club; and Mike McNulty, president of the United States Tennis Association, officials said they had reached out to Ms Osaka to open a discussion about her well-being and concerns about press conferences and mental health.

Ms Osaka, they said, refused to engage with them, leaving them no choice but to pursue significant sanctions to ensure that she did not gain an advantage over her competitors.

“We want to stress that rules are in place to ensure that all players are treated exactly the same, regardless of their stature, beliefs or achievements,” officials said. “As a sport, there is nothing more important than making sure that no player has an unfair advantage over another, which is unfortunately the case in this situation if a player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media engagements while others honor all of their engagements. ”

Since the inception of social media over a decade ago, sports stars, politicians and celebrities, especially younger ones, have increasingly used it to speak directly to their fans. The pandemic, which forced almost every sports press conference to be held virtually, accelerated the shift in power, making the events that led to Ms Osaka’s removal from the tournament even more surprising.

Sofia Kenin, the 2020 Women’s Tour Player of the Year, said she respects Ms Osaka’s decision and acknowledged that the pressures of being a young star are intense.

“That’s what you signed up for,” Ms. Kenin said. “It’s sport. There are expectations from the outside, from the sponsors and from everyone. You just need to manage it one way or another. “

Ms Osaka said she was planning to walk away from the tennis court. She did not say if she would play in the next Grand Slam tournament, Wimbledon, which begins in just four weeks, just two weeks after the conclusion of Roland Garros.

Wimbledon is the only Grand Slam tournament to be played on grass, another surface where Ms Osaka’s performance has not matched her dominance on hard courts. She never made it past the third round at Wimbledon, which is widely regarded as the sport’s most important championship.

“I’ll see you when I see you,” she wrote to end her Instagram post.

Michael Levenson in New York contributed reporting.



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