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Naomi Osaka hailed for bravery, pilloried for ‘diva behavior’ amid French Open withdrawal

Japan's Naomi Osaka reacts May 30 during her first-round match against Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig in the French Open. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
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LONDON — In the wake of Naomi Osaka’s decision to quit the French Open to preserve her mental well-being, athletes, celebrities and ordinary social media users rallied in support of the 23-year-old tennis star, who called out the media pressures athletes face and was subsequently fined for avoiding reporters.

But some of the harsher elements among journalists — her skipping a news conference sparked a spat with tennis officials in the run-up to her withdrawal — castigated her conduct. British right-wing television personality Piers Morgan called her “world sport’s most petulant little madam.” Oliver Brown, the lead sportswriter for the Telegraph, a British newspaper, accused her of “diva behavior.”

Morgan said Monday that Osaka was “narcissistic” and accused her of taking a leaf from “the Meghan & Harry playbook of wanting their press cake and eating it.”

“Unfortunately, Ms Osaka is also an arrogant spoiled brat whose fame and fortune appears to have inflated her ego to gigantic proportions,” he wrote.

Naomi Osaka, on May 31, withdrew from the French Open out of concern for her mental well-being. (Video: The Washington Post)

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Osaka’s public avoidance of reporters and openness regarding her mental health struggles as a young Black and Asian woman in the spotlight triggered widespread debate over what should be expected of athletes and if facing questions from the media, while often in their most vulnerable moments, should be upheld or dismissed as simply part of the job.

Former British tennis player Andrew Castle also took a swipe at Osaka, telling radio station LBC that “she has got this completely wrong.” In remarks made Tuesday, he said that players were obliged to engage with reporters and the role was about more than “just hitting tennis balls.”

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Referencing her dealings with the media, Osaka said in a statement May 27 that she had “often felt” that the mental health of athletes was disregarded during interviews and said she would focus on protecting hers — and no longer subjecting herself to questions that sowed doubt and negative interactions.

In Japan, fans of Osaka praised her bravery and urged her to take good care, as former tennis star Ai Sugiyama said that she hoped the controversial decision would “create an opportunity to talk about athlete’s mental health.”

“I hope she wraps herself up in a fluffy blanket and takes it easy until she feels content,” read one of many sympathetic tweets, while Japanese television personality Ruriko Kojima told her followers that the star was “fighting against herself, against pressure, against fixed ideas, against discrimination.”

Katsunobu Kato, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, told reporters that he would “watch over” the star “quietly,” adding that many were worried about the player, who is expected to front this summer’s upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo.

In the United Kingdom, retired English badminton player Gail Emms said that news conferences could be “really intimidating,” especially for players who did not necessarily enjoy public speaking, a sentiment other athletes — including Serena Williams — also echoed.

Speaking Monday, Williams said she could relate to Osaka’s concerns, adding that athletes have “different personalities, and people are different,” making it challenging for those who are introverted to face the interest and scrutiny that comes with the profession.

Four-time Olympic champion and British runner Mo Farah told Sky News that talking to large groups of journalists could be daunting and called on people to support the star who was fined $15,000 by tournament officials for refusing to talk to the press at a post-match news conference last week.

While the Center for Mental Health did not directly address Morgan’s attack Tuesday, the charity said in a statement that some of the reaction from “UK media commentators” showed little — if any — compassion, adding that the reaction to the star’s decision showed “deep-seated prejudices about mental health still need to be rooted out.”

British lawmaker Dawn Butler also questioned Morgan’s column, tweeting that abuse should not be considered part of the job.

“Knowing your self worth and protecting your mental health is to be admired,” she wrote on Twitter.

Earlier this year, Morgan was pressured out of his job as an anchor on television program “Good Morning Britain” after he accused Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, of lying about her mental health struggles.

“On Monday I said I didn’t believe Meghan Markle in her Oprah [Winfrey] interview. I’ve had time to reflect on this opinion, and I still don’t,” he tweeted as he refused to apologize for his attack on her — remarks that generated more than 40,000 complaints to broadcaster ITV.

“Think of how the media treats women who speak about their mental health. From Naomi Osaka to Meghan Markle, from Princess Diana to Amy Winehouse, from reality TV stars to royalty. The women change, the will to humiliate doesn’t,” wrote author Matt Haig.