Naomi’s candid confessions have given the world of sports food for thought
Naomi Osaka’s exit from the French Open after winning the first round came as quite a shock to the world. The second seeded tennis player is one of the highest paid athletes in the world, with a huge fortune. She was only twenty when she suddenly came into the spotlight, after defeating Serena Williams in the finals of the US Open in 2018. Williams was desperately looking forward to winning her twenty-fourth Grand Slam title and setting a record.
However, that final was riddled with controversy, with Serena Williams being fined for racket abuse and later swearing at the umpire. Osaka, rather than basking in the glory of defeating one of the finest tennis players in the world, broke down in tears. She actually apologised for the fact that she had won and Serena hadn’t. She was also booed by the crowd, who were all rooting for Serena to win her twenty-fourth Grand Slam. However, Osaka was no flash in the pan. She went on to defeat Williams again in the Australian Open. She is a force to be reckoned with and one of the first Japanese players to make a name for herself in the world of tennis.
Her exit from the French Open came as quite a shock because she had spoken very candidly about her mental health issues, which she had been battling since that fateful US Open Final. Generally, athletes prefer not to talk about any emotional or psychological issues they might be facing, since it is somewhat of a taboo subject. The issue came to light when she refused to interact with the media after the matches. She said that it exacerbated her mental health issues to discuss the matches in excruciating detail, especially if it’d been a particularly gruelling match, which despite one’s best efforts, has not gone in one’s favour. The last thing one wants is to do a post-mortem because that just adds to the emotional stress one is already experiencing.
Although a few people have spoken up in her favour, many, like Piers Morgan, have compared her to Meghan Markle. Piers claimed she had a narcissistic streak like Markle, and that this was merely a ploy to grab more attention. He got a lot of flak for that thoughtless and insensitive remark. Discrimination against people of colour in the West is quite rampant, highlighted by the George Floyd incident last year. White athletes have it relatively easier, but tennis players of colour like Serena, Venus and now Osaka, who make it to the top, do have to contend with racial prejudice and work ten times harder to prove their worth. They are viewed through a sceptical lens and the public is less ready to accept their successes and accomplishments. Most of them have to put up a fight for everything that comes their way.
Another point to consider is an athlete’s shelf life. The age factor begins to interfere with an athlete’s performance, and somebody younger and fitter is always ready to take their place. Their success and glory is short-lived and generally, in order to survive, an athlete needs to remain both mentally and physically fit. There is always the fear and pressure of being replaced by someone younger, fitter, more talented or more skilled. The ones who make it to the top have to contend with a lot of personal and professional demons to sustain that success.
That pressure does take its toll on one’s psychological health. Osaka has spoken up about it, whereas a number of people would stay mum for fear of exposing their vulnerabilities on an international platform. We all have things we feel vulnerable about, but very few are ready to talk about them on a global platform. Kudos to Naomi for being so candid about her struggle with depression, social anxiety and the fact that she is not a natural public speaker. A number of athletes would not prioritise self-care over their career and carry on regardless.
However, despite the French Open professing a commitment to athletes’ physical and mental well-being, Osaka was slapped with a fine of $15,000 and threatened with expulsion. This was when she finally decided to withdraw. However, her exit has opened a Pandora’s box. Athletes are only human and not all of them can cope with the pressures that come their way. Interaction with the media is a part of the job, but it should not come at the expense of one’s mental health and well-being, especially if you have been defeated in a match you had set your heart on winning. Dissecting and analysing it in excruciating detail and responding to direct and brutal questioning by the media only exacerbates any underlying issues athletes are suffering from and requires nerves of steel. As Serena Williams said, not everyone is made that way.
Naomi’s candid confessions have given the world of sports food for thought. They can be seen as a plea to the world to leave her in peace until she sorts herself out. Maybe we need to be more compassionate and understanding of other people. Let’s give her time and space and I’m sure she’ll be back, after a much needed break. In the meantime, let’s enjoy tennis in Paris.
The writer is an educationist and can be reached at [email protected]