Star tennis player Naomi Osaka raises a debate at French Open

S R Suryanarayan



The French Open for sure would not have bargained for this kind of publicity. On hindsight the sudden development could well trigger a new dimension in the field of sports, that of dealing with players suffering from mental issues. Indeed that is the message that this Japanese star Naomi Osaka sent out in her brief presence in this year's Grand Slam. Even as the event entered the second week with the fancied making progress and a few seeded players falling by the wayside including as it happened the top women's seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia due to injury and not to forget popular Roger Federer's surprise withdrawal midway, here was Osaka making an unbelievable impact with her decision to withdraw in the very second round citing depression and social anxiety.

The immediate cause for Osaka's action was of course her determined stand that she would not attend the mandatory post-match press conference. She was fined and there was the threat of potential ban from future tournaments and her response was a dramatic full stop to her participation in this event this year. Without having to showcase even a glimpse of her immense talent that had helped her garner four Grand Slam titles apart from raising her to the second rank in the world, (she was ranked one until this February) this Asian player (father Haitian and mother Japanese) grabbed so much attention even as she brought to fore the crushing topic of mental issues among sportspersons right to the fore.

True, for Osaka it has never been a journey of joy out and out. Yes, she is proving a winner on the tennis court but just recall how she had won her first Grand Slam in 2018 in the US Open. She beat her idol and a top favourite Serena Williams not through her own striking talent alone but the latter's default. Serena lost her mind and composure over Umpires calls, earned penalty and what is more dug her own grave so to say. Osaka emerged winner but it was boos that greeted her! It was a tearful sight and it required the large-hearted Serena to give her hug and support to tide over that emotional upheaval at that moment. All that passed, the Japanese rose in style and before long had gathered so much interest on and off the court (read endorsements) that she raked in a whopping $55 million in the past one year to become the best paid female sportsperson. It was her play and interactions that developed her personality and the resultant acceptability as a prized product.

Being a resident of America, Osaka took full advantage of her growing stature in lending her voice to social issues like the Black Lives Mattes movement against police brutality. At the US Open last year, which she won, she had worn a different mask for each of her seven matches in the tournament bearing the name of a Black victim of racial violence. In fact such was her growing influence that when she initially withdrew from the semi-final of the Cincinnati Open to protest against police violence, the organisers themselves expressed solidarity by suspending the event for a day! Her voice then was loud and clear. Osaka is also a big star back in Japan where she is expected to be bestowed with the honour of being the country's flag-bearer for the forthcoming Olympics. Her impact on social media too has widened, much of it happening in the phase of the pandemic when her political activism had risen. Considering all this Osaka's decision before the French Open to keep away from the obligatory press conferences seemed surprising to say the least.

Naomi Osaka
Osaka had detailed the struggles she has had with depression and anxiety and that called for a reflection

But at the same time the wider issue of mental problems came to the fore and that is what has now made tennis officials around the world to wake up to the new challenges. Osaka had detailed the struggles she has had with depression and anxiety and that called for a reflection. Perhaps it was the unnerving experience following the 2018 US Open win that started it all for this Japanese. Even though she has a nice word for the media, she perhaps found it more comfortable in one-way communication which the social media provided than the dialogues in press conferences where a wrongly said word or usage could have its own potential backlash. Then again her record in French Open and also the Wimbledon that follow have not been particularly heartening. In fact she has hardly done much in these events and for one who has been slowly but surely rising up the rungs in world tennis, discussing the negatives can hardly be inspiring. It is easy to get away with a 'no comment' for undesirable questions from the journalists but the impact of the words already thrown at her can do enough damage to the mental build up particularly in the midst of tournaments. That is a paradox every player goes through because modern professionalism required acceptance of certain norms.

Osaka has proved different. She has stirred a hornet's nest, so to say. She had made a point not just for herself but the world of sportspersons at large. For, often we do hear of depression in this community more so among the very well performing ones. Most startling revelation in this category has to be that of noted Olympic champion, winner of 28 medals including 23 gold, American swimmer Michael Phelps. He once admitted depression overtook him so much and he had struggled to overcome suicidal tendencies. For now, the hope is for better times ahead for all stakeholders not least the players. At age 23, Osaka still has a long career ahead and who knows it could be a path breaking journey in the world of tennis.

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