Tennis Is A Game, Mental Health Is Not. Should Naomi Osaka’s Decision Stir Controversy?

naomi osaka mental health
For Naomi Osaka mental health is a priority. Far more, it seems, than her formidable world Grand Slam status and historic wins on the tennis court.

Citing depression and social anxiety, it all began with Osaka’s refrainment from post-game press conferences and ended with her withdrawal from the French Open 2021. In what has spurred an ugly, contorted conversation around her commitment to the sport, the 23-year-old tennis star’s decision is under high global glare.

But should it all be? Must mental health challenges professed by someone – anyone, even if she is a title holding player – become debate fodder? Should Osaka’s decision be up for such gruelling public scrutiny? Must a young woman be penalised so for keeping herself above her work?

“Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted… I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences… I’m gonna take some time away from the court now,” Osaka’s rather earnest statement reads. After her abruptly announced word on press conferences, the French Open tournament fined the player and threatened her with suspension. The hostility resulted in Osaka stepping back herself.

Read her full statement here: 

Naomi Osaka Mental Health Priorities Shouldn’t Be Up For Discussion

A barrage of vicious attacks – questioning everything, from Osaka’s integrity to her womanhood – has emerged in this entire episode’s aftermath. Can’t a sportsperson sustain the pressure of press queries? The full package of world sport comes with press conferences so hasn’t she, in effect, abdicated her duties as a player?

These accusatory questions do not matter when the issue raised is of mental health and personal well-being. Actually, they don’t hold much ground even when it’s a matter of personal choice for other unnamed reasons, but that’s a discussion for another day. In a space as sensitive, fragile as that of mental peace, the discourse has progressed far enough to know that one needs to tread carefully.

Does anyone at all then hold entitlement to point fingers at Osaka for her decision to keep herself before press obligations? Should she be held accountable by third persons who know nothing of who she is outside of the court? More importantly, what will such briskly passed negative global commentary do to the young woman?

If, even after the difficult declaration of her own vulnerabilities, there are people choosing to walk over her in impinging breach of her personal space, is it not mental harassment? 

There is, of course, a volley of support for Osaka from prominent quarters including from fellow sportspersons Serena and Venus Williams, Usain Bolt, Mithali Raj and a million other well-wishers on the internet. Here are some:

Statutes, laws, rules are human-made and hence of dynamic feature for the very reason that our living is not – and will never be – instructable by permanent orders of living. And now that mental health is getting its due with invigorated talk of its prime importance, is it not on workplaces to re-evaluate and adopt more inclusive ways of functioning that don’t stake the value and dignity of life itself? That make the work space a safe space? That safeguard the rights of their people?

Then even if those people’s hands seem strong enough to wield a tennis racket.

Views expressed are the author’s own.