Naomi Osaka and mental health in sport: What next after French Open stance?

By Sports Desk June 03, 2021

Naomi Osaka's shock withdrawal from the French Open has raised questions over news conferences and their impact on mental health for athletes.

Osaka pulled out of Roland Garros on Monday, a day after tournament organisers fined the four-time grand slam champion and threatened her with more severe sanctions for refusing to attend mandatory media conferences.

The 23-year-old world number two and Japanese star had opened up about her mental health problems, revealing in a statement she has had "long bouts of depression" since claiming the 2018 US Open.

While her WTA and ATP Tour colleagues voiced their support, Osaka's stance has sparked controversy, though more importantly it has highlighted the growing issue of mental health problems in sport.

"I think it's a very important stance because it really highlights how sport has really looked at challenging issues through either the paradigm of sport or business," World Players Association executive director Brendan Schwab told Stats Perform. "Here, there is a very simple rule put in place that athletes have to attend post-match media conferences in order to promote visibility around the sport and then to promote the commercial interests of the sport. But that rule is put in place without any due diligence being done as to the risks with that on athletes or athlete health and safety.

"If we look at health and safety, we have to look at not only physical health but mental health and wellbeing. There is a very clear rule but it's going to impact athletes differently. The tournament organisers and sports bodies need to understand they have this proactive duty and to be aware of those impacts, and where their rule is going to have a harmful impact, they need to just adjust their procedures and requirements accordingly."

German great Boris Becker voiced his concerns for Osaka's future following her decision to quit the French Open in Paris.

A six-time slam winner, Becker told Eurosport: "I always believed the media was part of the job. Without the media, there is no prize money, no contracts, you don't get half the cake. I hated the media and I didn't like talking to journalists, but you had to do it.

"Now she is pulling out of the tournament altogether because she can't cope with it and that raises much bigger questions for me. If she can't cope with the media in Paris, she can't cope with the media in Wimbledon or the US Open. So I almost feel like her career is in danger due to mental health issues."

It is a view shared by many past and present tennis players – news conferences are part and parcel of the job. But are they?

"I think everyone would agree that is an important part of the job, but certainly not an essential part. The essential part of the job is performing as a player. But we cannot ask people to perform in circumstances where it's unsafe. It may be safe for some and unsafe for others," said Schwab.

"As in this case, there is an understanding that a particular player has a pre-condition or certain vulnerability, not to respond to that is inexcusable. It's certainly no defence to say it's safe for other people. That is why we need a real deep understanding of mental health.

"It's really important to see it as an occupational issue. A sporting place is not an ordinary workplace. It is a workplace which has heightened pressure. Therefore, the likelihood of there being adverse mental health impacts are greater. It's not going to affect everyone equally and sports bodies need to be smart enough to understand that fact."

Schwab added: "For Naomi's incredibly courageous stance here, there will be other players for which withdrawal is not an option and they will continue to face the workplace and pressures associated with that and therefore exacerbating the harm they're already experiencing."

The World Players Association is the leading voice of organised players in the governance of world sport. It brings together 85,000 players across professional sport through more than 100 player associations in over 60 countries.

As mental health becomes more prevalent in a professional sports environment amid the growing physical and emotional demands, Schwab said: "What our Players Associations do is they run player development and wellbeing programmes. The more sophisticated of those programmes would actually have employees and experts who are engaged by the player associations but often based in the teams or club environment, so the players know they can access them, they are proximate to the players so they can access tailored advice and support.

"Mental health is one of those things but there are many other issues that players will have to deal with. The athletic career itself is short-term and precarious, so there is constant effort being made to ensure players are developing holistically, they're pursuing education and other opportunities."

As Schwab voiced his disapproval of the "blanket rule" to post-match commitments, the Australian shed light on how the World Players Association prepares athletes for the media.

"Certainly part of our development programmes, we will provide what we call induction programmes so that the players go through what they will expect in terms of their athletic career, so they can excel as athletes and in the job," he said. "Clearly, dealing with the media is a very important part of those programmes, but you have to be really careful to ensure this isn't a 'one-size-fits-all' approach. Player associations have a common interest with sports bodies to maximise the interest in the sport and commercial viability so the players can share in their wealth, but the impact is dispiriting.

"If we look at the way players are being trained physically, physical loads are being tailored based on the individual athletic capacity of certain players. Physical health is not the only health and safety concern we have to be worried about. Players have different vulnerabilities in terms of mental health and therefore it makes absolute sense for sports bodies to tailor their commitments, so they don't unnecessarily expose more vulnerable players than others. A blanket rule, like in this case, where athletes feel vulnerable and are at risk of an adverse health consequence should not be imposed.

"I really do believe the tournament organisers, Roland Garros in particular, exacerbated that harm when they started to promote the fact that other players were comfortable to do the press conferences in order to put pressure on Naomi, and clearly that has proven to be incredibly counterproductive… if the starting point is not a recognition of their proactive duty to provide a safe workplace and that safe workplace means understanding the physical, mental and the wellbeing risks holistically and then tailoring for the particular needs of players individually, then these kind of problems will likely reoccur."

Related items

  • Norrie continues stunning season after reaching Indian Wells decider against Basilashvili Norrie continues stunning season after reaching Indian Wells decider against Basilashvili

    ameron Norrie continued his sensational year by reaching his sixth and most significant final for the season with a straight-sets win over Grigor Dimitrov in the Indian Wells Masters semi-finals on Saturday.

    The British 21st seed claimed his 46th win for the season, earning his sixth final appearance for the season, which is the equal most of any male player on tour, alongside Novak Djokovic.

    Norrie will play Georgian 29th seed Nicoloz Basilashvili who defeated local Taylor Fritz in straight sets to reach a Masters 1000 final for the first time.

     

    NORRIE TOPPLES TIRING DIMITROV

    Norrie will also be making his maiden Masters 1000 final appearance after a 6-2 6-4 victory over 23rd seed Dimitrov in one hour and 26 minutes.

    The 26-year-old Briton got ahead in both sets with an early break to set up the victory. Norrie moves ahead of Daniil Medvedev, Casper Ruud and Stefanos Tsitsipas and level with Djokovic for most final appearances this season.

    "I've been playing a lot of big matches this year, which has helped," Norrie said during his on-court interview. "I feel like I am used to the big moments and the big matches.

    "I'm feeling more and more comfortable and I feel like I am playing on my terms in key moments."

    Dimitrov, who beat top seed Daniil Medvedev in an epic fourth round comeback, appeared spent physically with 31 unforced errors compared to Norrie's 19, with the Briton only hitting 12 winners for the match.

    The triumph boosts Norrie's hopes of qualifying for the ATP Finals, with victory in the decider to see him move past Jannik Sinner into 10th position and within 125 points of the last position, currently occupied by Hubert Hurkacz.

     

    BASILASHVILI MAKES MAIDEN MASTERS 1000 FINAL

    Basilashvili overcame late nerves to secure his first-ever Masters 1000 final berth with victory over 31st seed Fritz in 7-6 (7-5) 6-3 in one hour and 41 minutes.

    The 29-year-old, who had never won a main draw match at Indian Wells prior to this year's event, had 26-21 winners for the match, stepping up in the key moments to claim his breakthrough spot in a decider.

    "It means a lot, especially at Indian Wells," Basilashvili said during his on-court interview. "People call this the fifth grand slam so it means a lot."

    The Georgian was uncompromising and committed throughout, staving off three Fritz set points in the first set, before getting the lead in a tiebreak. Basilashvili converted his first break point for the match to lead 4-2 in the second set, although he spurned three match points with missed forehands, before sealing victory.

    "For me, I'm first time experiencing semi-finals, finals and quarter-finals so I'm really tight," Basilashvili said. "It's natural but I try to get rid of it as much as I can. If I focus on my game and play, I can play good tennis."

  • Zverev rues missed opportunity as he follows Tsitsipas out at Indian Wells Zverev rues missed opportunity as he follows Tsitsipas out at Indian Wells

    Alexander Zverev rued a missed opportunity to win the Indian Wells Masters as he crashed out in the quarter-finals at the hands of home favourite Taylor Fritz.

    American Fritz saved two match points to pull off an upset 4-6 6-4 7-6 (7-3) win over Olympic gold medallist Zverev.

    Third seed Zverev was aware he had become hot favourite to triumph in California after Stefanos Tsitsipas crashed out to Nikoloz Basilashvili earlier on Friday, with US Open champion Daniil Medvedev already eliminated.

    And the German was frustrated with his performance against Fritz, which left him unable to add to the Masters 1000 titles he has already won in Madrid and Cincinnati this year.

    "It was just not really my day, to be honest," said Zverev, who had beaten Jenson Brooksby, Andy Murray and Gael Monfils to reach the last eight.

    "I was close to winning, but the level of tennis was just not there for me.

    "Mentally this is not easy for me. My next tournament is Vienna, so hoping I can deal with it well there, but right now I just want to go home.

    "It was a very long season and I have played well but this one hurts because I knew that, after Stefanos lost this morning, I was kind of the favourite to win this tournament, but my tennis wasn't there yet."

    Zverev had won 20 of his previous 21 matches on hard courts and led 5-2 in the deciding set.

    But Fritz was not to be denied, firing 36 winners to secure the second top-five win of his career, with this triumph adding to impressive victories over Italian duo Matteo Berrettini and Jannik Sinner this week.

    Fritz said: "This is the farthest I've ever been in a big tournament. 

    "It is easily the best win of my life, against a really tough opponent on arguably the biggest match I could possibly play, so it's great.

    "The biggest thing was match point down, I wanted to make him serve it out, so I just fought as hard as I could to hold that game.

    "Then I got fortunate in his service game and from there I felt in control and felt really good under the pressure. I kept fighting. The crowd pushing me on meant so much.

    "It is amazing. Especially the way that match ended with such high emotions with the crowd. The crowd was amazing and it is a dream come true."

  • Azarenka on brink of Indian Wells history after reaching final as Badosa awaits Azarenka on brink of Indian Wells history after reaching final as Badosa awaits

    Victoria Azarenka is one win away from becoming the first three-time winner of the WTA Indian Wells Open after rallying past Jelena Ostapenko in the semi-finals.

    After dropping the opening set, two-time Indian Wells champion Azarenka stormed back to outlast the 2017 French Open winner on Friday.

    Standing in the way of Azarenka and history is Paula Badosa, who eased past Ons Jabeur in the second semi-final in the Californian desert.

     

    AZARENKA RETURNS TO INDIAN WELLS FINAL

    Winner of the Indian Wells Open in 2012 and 2016, Azarenka is back in the decider thanks to a stirring 3-6 6-3 7-5 comeback against fellow seed Ostapenko.

    Former world number one Azarenka was down a set and a break before the 27th seed fought back to prevail over Ostapenko in two hours, 20 minutes.

    By seeing off 24th seed Ostapenko, two-time grand slam champion Azarenka celebrated her 33rd match win at Indian Wells – only two women have won more matches at the tournament, Lindsay Davenport (47) and Maria Sharapova (38).

    "I think my season has been tricky," Azarenka said. "There were parts where I physically couldn't necessarily bring that extra level, extra fight, which was very frustrating. Then there were parts where I felt that I was looking for something to add, and I didn't necessarily know what it was. It was a lot of searching in the season, a lot of kind of stepping into unknown.

    "I feel like right now I'm a bit more settled with a bit more structure, a little bit more discipline, which makes it not necessarily easier but a bit clearer what I need to do. So it doesn't take extra energy on that, so I can kind of focus my energy more on the fighting for every ball."

     

    BADOSA UPSTAGES JABEUR

    Spaniard Badosa added another scalp to her name by trumping 12th seed Jabeur 6-3 6-3.

    Looking to become the first Spanish woman to win the Indian Wells Open, 21st seed Badosa made light work of Jabeur.

    Badosa's success means she has beaten four top-20 opponents en route to the final, having stunned Angelique Kerber in the quarter-finals.

    Having won her first title earlier this year in Belgrade, Badosa will feature in her second career WTA decider.

© 2020 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.