In response, Osaka withdrew from the tournament. In a Twitter post, she explained that she had struggled with bouts of depression and that speaking to a room full of journalists caused her serious anxiety.
In a recent interview, Stephens spoke about her regret about quarantining for a tennis match instead of attending the funeral of her grandmother, who died of covid-19.
In a post for the “Behind the Racquet” Instagram series, 17-year-old Gauff talked about the pressures of being a young phenom. “Throughout my life, I was always the youngest to do things, which added hype that I didn’t want,” she said. “It added this pressure that I needed to do well fast.”
After George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin, Tiafoe created “Rackets Down, Hands Up,” a social media video about racial justice that went viral. “Normally with social media, everyone has to watch what they say and be more closed about how they feel, but everyone was speaking out and we wanted to seize that opportunity,” he told Eurosport of his decision to make the video.
Experts say this openness among athletes is new — and empowering. “I would say that this generation is a lot more vocal and forward about speaking about their personal challenges and successes, and I think it’s a good thing,” Katrina M. Adams, who is Black and a former pro tennis player, told About US in an interview.
Adams said that statements such as Osaka’s invite others to speak out about their needs. Osaka’s comments “allowed other players to at least have a conversation among themselves and among their own teams and maybe bring light to some pressure that maybe they have been feeling on the mental health and wellness side,” Adams said. “Maybe it will spark those individuals to reach out to get help sooner than later.”
But speaking up — and speaking out — can also carry risks for Black tennis players. Tennis superstar Serena Williams, who broke barriers to become the most accomplished tennis player of all time, has spoken about how she has felt “underpaid” and “undervalued” as a Black woman in tennis.
During the 2018 U.S. Open final, Williams got into an intense argument with umpire Carlos Ramos over a call. Williams was later portrayed in some outlets as angry and irrational. One outlet published a cartoon that featured a racist caricature of Williams as a pacifier-sucking young child throwing a tantrum.
Now Osaka is being called “petulant” and a “diva” by some conservative outlets for her decision to withdraw from the French Open.
About US spoke with Adams, the first African American to serve as the president of the U.S. Tennis Association and the author of “Own the Arena,” about why athletes of color are speaking up more and how that is changing the sport of tennis.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: What role do you think that athletes like Serena Williams have played in changing those perceptions about tennis?
A: Venus and Serena definitely started a boom for our younger girls back in the day. They’ve been around for 25 years playing professional tennis. So they sparked and inspired a lot of kids, boys and girls, to get into the sport. I mean, when Sloane and Madison [Keys] got to the finals of the U.S. Open in 2017, they talked about having posters of Venus and Serena on their wall and that they were their inspiration.
If you turn on the television week in and week out and you see someone that looks like you, then it sparks a conversation for the kid to say, “Wow, who’s that?” or “What that?” or “Wow, they’re really good,” or “Wow, I want to try that.”
But if you don’t have the opportunity to see someone that looks like you, then perhaps they’re not going to be interested in getting into the sport if they’re not introduced to it in any other way.
Q: Over the last few years, Serena Williams has spoken openly about some of the serious health challenges she faced while pregnant, including her near-death experience after delivering her daughter via emergency C-section. How do you think that Serena Williams’s openness about motherhood and personal issues influenced younger athletes like Naomi Osaka?
A: We’re all human, and I think it’s important that we share our human side. When you have a platform like that you can bring awareness to these topics … knowing that they can help others or bring awareness to others, then I think it’s huge.
With Serena, with her life-threatening issues that she endured after childbirth and many of the other issues, it’s real.
And people need to know that they’re not the only ones that are experiencing these situations. And Naomi bringing her issues to the forefront, it’s not the first time that players have talked about being depressed. Serena has talked about being depressed time and time again.
And I think it’s a matter of humans understanding that they are human, that they aren’t robots, that no professional athlete is a robot and that we have real issues that we have to deal with personally outside of playing in front of billions on a daily basis.
Q: Do you see this also as a generational shift in terms of younger players feeling more comfortable talking about those personal issues?
A: I would say that this generation is a lot more vocal and forward about speaking about their personal challenges and successes, and I think it’s a good thing. I think you had generations of people that were taught to never talk about anything like that, because it’s embarrassing or it’s not proper or it’s not this or it’s not that. It’s not ladylike.
I applaud these young athletes, men and women, who will speak out about some personal challenges that they’re having or personal experiences, because it’s important for them first to know that they’re not the only one and it’s important for those that are receiving the message to recognize that they’re not the only one and that they’re normal.
Q: What are your thoughts on Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the tournament?
A: Only Naomi knows what she’s feeling. We watched her grow up as we’ve watched every tennis player kind of grow up under a microscope and under a lens. We all know that speaking in public and being in those environments are not comfortable for her if she’s dealing with mental health issues. And that’s serious. And like I said, she’s not the only player that is dealing with that or has dealt with that.
I think the important thing is that she can get the help that she needs and have the conversations that she needs to find clarity and calmness for herself so that she can go out and perform the way that her fans want to see her perform. But when you mention mental health, that’s a very serious topic. And it shouldn’t be taken lightly, by no means. And hopefully she can address it in the proper way.