Osaka, at 23 the second-ranked women’s tennis player and the most highly paid female athlete in the world, withdrew from the French Open on Monday. Her step came after a week of volleys with the tournament’s organizers over her refusal to attend media events, citing the challenge they posed to her mental health.
Osaka first said she would not participate in the tournament’s customary post-match news conferences. Then, after a $15,000 fine and a warning from organizers that she would be suspended, she took the extraordinary step of removing herself.
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka explained on Twitter and Instagram. “I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences."
This is not your father’s French Open — or your mother’s. Issues of mental health, among public figures such as athletes or among the rest of us, used to be only whispered about, if that. Suffering from mental health issues was viewed as shameful.
No more — in part, perhaps, because depression and anxiety seem to be so prevalent among younger Americans. One in eight American 18-to-25-year-olds — Osaka’s Gen Z — has experienced a major depressive episode, a rate significantly higher than that of even one generation older.
Osaka’s generation is among the first to speak freely, or at least more freely, about mental health issues; it is also a cohort that is accustomed to doing its speaking on social media, where a candid post about mental health feels like an unexceptional way of explaining oneself and connecting to fans.
To older generations, however, Instagram is still seen as a less-than-professional tool. This approach may have lent Osaka’s announcements an unintended air of disrespect. The medium affected the way we understood — or misunderstood — the message. Perhaps this disconnect is what led to such escalation from Grand Slam officials.
Here is where Osaka’s May 26 post on social media, with its dry tone and multimedia additions, may have gone astray. “If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes ... I just gotta laugh,” she wrote. Accompanying her now-deleted Instagram post were two video clips: one of a 14-year-old Venus Williams being asked over and over by a reporter why she believed in herself; another of the delightfully truculent NFL player Marshawn Lynch answering press questions during the run-up to the 2015 Super Bowl with variations on the phrase, “I’m here so I won’t get fined.”
Osaka was issuing a plea for understanding, if not for help, but it was read by many as a cheeky challenge to authority.
Commenters “you-go-girled” and cracked jokes. Roland-Garros responded with a subtweet from its official Twitter account; it posted images of other players submitting to interviews, with the line, “They understood the assignment." It was only after Osaka’s second post, with its added revelations about the real state of her mental health, that her position was taken seriously.
But how seriously, really? This gets to the deeper question of what athletes, or other celebrities, owe their public. Osaka’s willingness to acknowledge nonphysical challenges stands in contrast to the stiff-upper-lip mentality still expected by an older generation in positions of power.
Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation and a former men’s tour player himself, sniffed to a French sports daily that Osaka’s decision was a “phenomenal error,” one that was “very damaging to sport, to tennis, to her probably.”
And even as they attempted to signal their sympathy, an older generation of athletes and fans echoed Moretton: Osaka signed up for media pushback; it’s part of the job. Surely all that money and fame should be consolation for a few rude questions from a quote-hungry sportswriter.
But money isn’t our only measure of well-being, nor should it be. When conservative personality Laura Ingraham told NBA star LeBron James to “shut up and dribble” in 2018, her comment was rightfully seen as dehumanizing and rejected out of hand. James had the right to speak out, or, more precisely, later kneel down; Osaka has a parallel right to stay quiet and play her sport, especially if subjecting herself to press inquisition is painful and damaging to her mental health.
Athletes are human, too; it may be their job to play, but they do not exist solely for our entertainment. By sitting the French Open out and reminding us of that truth, Osaka is doing not just herself but also “the sport” a favor — whether Grand Slam organizers realize it or not.