Tennis star Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open to prioritize her mental health, after being fined $15,000 and threatened with disqualification for previously opting out of press at the tournament. On May 31, the pro athlete took to Twitter to announce the decision and explain the reasons behind it.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other player and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” she wrote via notes App and shared on the app. “I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly…I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that…I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@naomiosaka) May 31, 2021
“I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
While we’re extremely proud of Osaka for honoring her boundaries and putting her mental health first, we’re also disappointed that it had to come to this. When someone — even a seemingly invincible 23-year-old tennis superstar — says they don’t want to do something to practice self-care and/or prioritize their mental health, it should be taken at face value, not questioned further. Osaka shouldn’t have had to pour her heart out to fans on Twitter simply to garner an ounce of empathy or understanding for why she may feel uncomfortable doing press or her need to drop out of the tournament.
Osaka’s now-viral confession is especially heartbreaking considering she experiences anxiety while under observation, which often worsens when attention on the individual escalates, as it has with Osaka despite expressing her triggers. So really, this situation may have been her worst nightmare: She tried to avoid the press to maintain her mental health, only to be penalized by tennis officials and bombarded by the press even further for setting boundaries. When someone feels like this, the best thing to do for them is give them space to breathe — while Osaka got the opposite.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the U.S., per the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), with over 40 million adults in the country experiencing symptoms. What’s more — and especially relevant for a professional sports player like Osaka — is that anxiety can physically affect someone who has it, too. Physical symptoms of anxiety can manifest in the form of a pounding heart, shortness of breathe, tremors, twitches, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, an upset stomach and more — all of which can severely impact someone’s physical performance in general, let alone at a major sports tournament.
(Plus, speaking as someone who personally has anxiety and panic disorder, some of the most common symptoms I experience are the sensations that I’m about to faint, have a heart attack and/or die — and I’d really rather not feel like that while playing sports in front of millions of people.)
Hopefully Osaka’s thoughtful decision to take a step back and focus on her well-being will inspire others in the limelight to do the same when they need it — and hopefully major sports organizations to reconsider what’s required of their athletes and how they can support their mental and physical health.