World number two Naomi Osaka, a Valley Stream native, said she was under immense pressure to disclose more details when she stepped away from the French Open for a mental health break, but is now ready to make Japan proud at the Tokyo Olympics.
Osaka stunned the tennis world when she quit the claycourt major last month after being fined and threatened with expulsion for declining to face media after her first match.
While the 23-year-old maintains a good relationship with journalists, she hopes the tennis world can respect mental health issues – just like any other workplace.
“It’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to not talk about it,” Osaka wrote in an essay for Time Magazine.
“I communicated that I wanted to skip press conferences at Roland Garros to exercise self-care and preservation of my mental health. I stand by that. Athletes are humans.”
Athletes should be allowed to occasionally skip media scrutiny for their mental wellbeing, she said.
“In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms – frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone.”
Traditional news conferences, where rows of journalists pepper sometimes highly personal questions at athletes often minutes after intense highs or lows in competition, were out of date, Osaka said.
“I believe that we can make it better, more interesting and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object. More peer to peer,” she said.
Osaka‘s French Open exit led to an outpouring of support from fellow tennis professionals and other athletes from Venus and Serena Williams to Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and former Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt.
She was particularly inspired by encouragement from American swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian.
“Michael Phelps told me that by speaking up I may have saved a life. If that’s true, then it was all worth it,” she said.
After skipping Wimbledon, four-time major champion Osaka is focused on a successful return at the Olympics on home soil.
“An Olympic Games itself is special, but to have the opportunity to play in front of the Japanese fans is a dream come true,” Osaka said. “I hope I can make them proud.”
(Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)