Paris, France: After exposing her battle with depression and anxiety, Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open has shone a harsh light on the mental health of the sport’s superstars, with one expert even accusing the media of “voyeurism.”
The 23-year-old world number two and the four-time major winner has announced that she would retire from tennis, putting her chances of competing at Wimbledon and the Olympics in her native country in jeopardy.
After refusing to fulfill mandated media engagements, Osaka was fined $15,000 and threatened with disqualification from Roland Garros.
She thinks they’re bad for her mental health and compares the usual post-game press conference to “kicking people when they’re down”.
“There’s a sense of voyeurism around how it presently works,” wrote Peter Terry, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia on theconversation.com, on Tuesday.
“Perhaps some want to see athletes crumble and break down into tears, having put them on a pedestal.
“Osaka is a young, introverted, anxious person. We should by now understand that sports stars are not superhuman, that they have the same doubts and mental health issues as everyone else.”
Terry was a member of a panel that drafted recommendations to help players avoid burnout and deal with pressure while they were in their mid-teens, and he worked for the WTA for nearly a decade.
One of the outcomes was a limit on the number of tournaments a player can enter before reaching a particular age.
Osaka’s mental health issues began in 2018 when she won the first of her four major titles in a contentious final against Serena Williams at the US Open.
She was only 20 years old and stood awkwardly courtside, her face hidden under her visor.
“Hard time coping”
“The truth is I have suffered bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
She added: “In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Williams, a veteran of press conferences in a career that is now in its fourth decade, believes all players should have access to counseling.
“I think that’s so important to have a sounding board, whether it’s someone at the WTA or whether it’s someone in your life,” said the American star.
Terry believes Osaka is correct in avoiding the spotlight when she is depressed.
A family support group and, if necessary, professional assistance are essential.
“The media don’t meet those criteria. So trying to deal with serious mental health issues in the glare of publicity is next to impossible,” he wrote.
“There are considerable forces pushing her toward even greater levels of anxiety. Could you imagine the level of expectations on her at the Tokyo Olympics?”
Rebecca Marino, a fellow professional, may offer Osaka advice on her next steps.
The former top 40 players from Canada retired from the sport in 2013, citing chronic depression and online harassment as reasons.
“Some people wrote to me that I had to die, others insulted me in a vulgar way,” said Marino who left tennis for four years to pursue other interests.
“I was too sensitive to everything that was said and written about me. Instead of avoiding comments, I was constantly looking for them on social networks and on the internet.”
When Marino returned to Grand Slam tennis this year in Australia, she gave Osaka some advice that could be essential now.
“My message is, ‘Just start the communication, just start talking to someone about what’s going on in your life; reach out, get help’.”
Osaka’s battle with depression is reminiscent of other athletes’ issues in recent years.
Some of the athletes who have documented their challenges include Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, Spanish midfielder Andres Iniesta, and England batsman Marcus Trescothick.
Robert Enke, a German goalkeeper, and Kelly Catlin, an American world track cycling champion, both committed suicide.
“Depression is a word which has a pejorative connotation and which is poorly understood by the population,” professor Philippe Godin, a sports psychologist at the University of Louvain in Belgium, said.
“In sport, you have to show that you are strong, almost invincible. So it is not compatible with weakness.”
Athlete mental health care in France has progressed during the last 20 years.
The psychologists of the National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance (Insep) have grown.
“We have more and more requests for support from athletes in terms of psychological and performance support,” Anaelle Malberbe, one of the five psychologists at Insep, told AFP in December.