"You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can."
These days, more and more people are becoming aware that mental health is as important as physical health — and we love to see it. However, despite mental wellness being less of a taboo topic in 2021, some folks are still surprised to hear public figures deal with mental health challenges, too. Recently, 23-year-old tennis champion Naomi Osaka announced she’s taking time away from her sport to prioritize her mental health, and tennis G.O.A.T. Serena Williams’ quotes about Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open are so freaking supportive!
Mental health awareness is finally getting the attention it deserves. The American Psychological Association reported in 2019 that a vast majority of Americans harbor positive views about mental health disorders and treatment in general, and an increasing number of institutions and individuals are recognizing May as Mental Health Awareness month. This destigmatization is a great thing for so many people, considering the National Institute of Mental Health reported approximately one in five adults lives with a mental illness. (Basically, no one is alone.)
But speaking out about your own mental health experiences can still be challenging — and even more so if you’re in the public eye. That’s why it was such a big deal for four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka to publicly cite depression and anxiety as her reason for withdrawing from the 2021 French Open. She said her mental health challenges are exacerbated by press interviews and conferences. At the French Open, tournament players are forced to partake in these media-related activities.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw [from the French Open] so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” Osaka explained in a Twitter and Instagram post on May 31. “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. 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… So here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
In her lengthy message, which followed the May 30 news that the French Open fined Osaka $15,000 for not attending a mandatory news conference, the Japanese tennis star said she believes the tournament’s rules (re: mandatory press conferences and the like) are “quite outdated”; she also noted that she’d already told the tournament she’d be “happy” to speak to the press after the Grand Slam competition.
However, despite Osaka writing the tournament directly, they still issued her the hefty fine and, in a press statement, threatened additional “consequences” for Osaka if she continued to “ignore her media obligations during the tournament.” Osaka publicly announced dropping out of the French Open one day after the Grand Slam’s press statement.
Osaka’s situation has been met with mixed feelings. Some people believe the French Open’s reaction to the athlete’s inability to meet press obligations is so unnecessary, while others feel like speaking to the media is a natural part of being a professional athlete.
One thing is clear, though: Serena Williams is so on Osaka’s side.
“The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi," Williams said on May 31 when asked about Osaka’s withdraw. "I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it's like. I've been in those positions… You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that's the only thing I can say. I think she's doing the best that she can."
If the one-and-only Serena Williams has your back, then you know you’re covered. However, it’s noteworthy that Williams, herself, has dealt with her fair share of difficulties when it comes to media matters. In February, the 23-time Grand Slam victor was trolled by interviewers who continually asked her about her retirement, which is totally intrusive.
Some of Williams’ supporters have also noted that Black women in sports are unfairly criticized no matter their behavior or decisions. For years, the 39-year-old athlete has been framed as an “angry Black woman,” for being too outspoken, and now, Osaka — another Black woman — is facing pushback for keeping to herself.
“It was just a few years ago that Naomi’s demure demeanor was used to juxtaposed against Serena’s ‘aggression’ and now that same thing Naomi was once exalted for is what she’s being criticized for,” one Twitter user wrote in a viral May 31 tweet. “Misogynoir is so flexible in its cruelty.”
Here’s what’s for sure: Osaka deserves the ability to invest all the time she needs into her mental health. When she’s ready to kick more booty on the court, her fans will be there for her, as always.