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Athletes are human, not cyborgs, and Naomi Osaka’s exit should make that clear

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open on Monday. (Caroline Blumberg/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

This is the outcome no one wanted: Naomi Osaka, one of the most compelling figures in tennis, out of the French Open.

It presents as an absurd dispute. Roland Garros officials consider post-match news conferences mandatory — a way to promote the sport and its characters — and when Osaka pledged not to participate for the duration of the tournament, they fined her, threatened her with expulsion and indicated there could be further sanctions, up to and including suspension. It felt like a draconian edict.

In response, Osaka withdrew Monday, citing via social media her mental health, bouts with depression and anxiety brought on by public speaking. It was a dramatic exit.

Somewhere along the line the system broke, and the event is worse for it. Beyond her first-round win Sunday, we don’t get to watch her play. We don’t get to listen to her tell her story. An intriguing personality and player is out of the draw, and there’s one less reason to watch.

But in getting to this point, Osaka — a four-time Grand Slam winner, the second-ranked player in the world, magnetic and multicultural — also outlined the forces pitted against each other here: player obligations to their sport and the public that enriches them, and player obligations to their own well-being. Mix in sports fans’ desire to know the people they root for, and the discomfort some athletes have with being in that position, and it’s a layered discussion.

Start with this, though: These are not cyborgs. They are humans. And Naomi Osaka is more human today than she was last week, when she abruptly announced her intention to skip all news conferences during her stay in Paris.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka wrote in a post she shared on Twitter and Instagram on Monday. “Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted. … I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.”

That’s different than, say, struggling on clay, Osaka’s most vexing surface. That’s real.

Naomi Osaka withdraws from French Open, says she will ‘take some time away from the court’

Interactions with the media shouldn’t drive elite athletes from the best competitions. Interactions with the media should help enhance the competitions by showing how those athletes became elite. It’s a journey, and understanding it can deepen the feeling a fan has for the performer.

But this is delicate territory, not easily navigated, unless you believe money and fame guarantee happiness. Some of the world’s best athletes — swimming legend Michael Phelps comes to mind — have emotionally and eloquently spoken about the mental health strains that can come with the pressure of trying to be the best at something. Osaka need only look across the draw at the French Open, where Ashleigh Barty of Australia is the top seed: She took a two-year break from tennis to reset her mind and then didn’t return after the coronavirus pause of 2020, giving up a chance to defend her French Open title.

“I needed time to step away, to live a normal life,” Barty said in 2019, “because this tennis life certainly isn’t normal.”

That must be acknowledged. The schedule is virtually year-round and nonstop. The travel can be isolating. The results are never based on a teammate’s play or a coach’s decision but on a single person’s effectiveness on a given day or over two weeks. Professional tennis is almost designed to foster mental health issues. Dismiss them at your own peril.

The flip side is that, at 23, Osaka is one of the most interesting and powerful athletes in the world. Sports business website Sportico reported she earned more than any female athlete in 2020 — $55.2 million with just $5 million from on-court earnings, the rest from off-court endorsements. She has not just a brand but a voice and so often has appeared unafraid to use it.

When Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin in August, Osaka successfully pushed to delay the tournament she was playing in so the country might focus more on the issues of race and inequity that drove so much discussion and so much protest last year. Each time she arrived on court at last year’s U.S. Open — which she won — she wore a mask emblazoned with the name of a Black man or woman killed, many at the hands of police, among them Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tamir Rice.

She is thoughtful and witty. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, she was raised on Long Island and in Florida. She has a unique perspective, and unlike Tiger Woods — similarly multiracial — she would rather embrace her Blackness and use it as a point of discussion than avoid social issues and just compete.

As a reporter and a writer, she’s exactly the kind of character you want to draw out and try to explain. Interviews help that process. But in a decade, will that be how we get to know the world’s best athletes?

“As sports people, we need to be ready to accept the questions and try to produce an answer, no?” Spain’s Rafael Nadal, who has won 13 times at Roland Garros, told reporters last week. “I understand her, but on the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally is traveling, who are … writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We [aren’t] going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no? I understand her. On the other hand I have my point of view that the media is a very important part of our sport.”

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There’s truth in that, but it’s quickly evolving. News conference questions can be inane and tedious. Social media gives athletes the ability to communicate directly with their fans without the risk that their words are used out of context. Osaka can turn to Instagram and TikTok to push the brands that help make her a fortune but also to show her working out with her boyfriend or sightseeing in Rome. The filter is no longer the press; it’s the athlete herself.

But the struggles and failures, they are as important to sports as the successes and championships. They can be physical or mental or both, but a character is more fully formed when he or she has endured adversity and overcome it. It’s rare that an athlete would explore such territory without questions that all but demand self-reflection. NBC builds Olympic broadcasts on that idea almost solely; its coverage is as much biopic as competition.

The point is this: Athletes aren’t just numbers on an odds sheet or computer simulations. At their best, sports make us care about the participants’ ups and downs, their nadirs and triumphs — and in the process we learn something about our shared limitations and vast potential. The “what” can be conveyed in a line of tournament results; the “why” and “how” — and especially the “who” — are why elite athletics have captivated us for centuries.

Naomi Osaka fits into that tradition, as fascinating for who she is as what she does. At some point, she’ll compete again. At some point, she’ll speak publicly again. Hopefully, she finds fulfillment — and not fear — in doing so.