PARIS – Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open a day after officials threatened to expel her from the second Grand Slam tournament of the season if she continued to refuse to attend press conferences after her matches.
The move was a dramatic turning point in the high-stakes standoff between tennis’s most powerful officials and Osaka, the world’s highest-paid female athlete and a generational star who quickly became the sport’s most magnetic new figure. .
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I am stepping back so everyone can focus again on the tennis that is happening in Paris. I never wanted to be a distraction and accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer, ”Osaka wrote on Instagram. “Most importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. The truth is, I have suffered from long periods of depression since the US Open in 2018 and have had a hard time coping with it.
Never before has such an important star left such an important event as the French Open for something almost every top tennis player has said in recent days as being as much a part of the tour as the long travel schedules. The clash also contrasted with last summer, when tennis officials suspended play at the Western & Southern Open after Osaka announced it would not play its semi-final match to draw attention to the problem of police violence against blacks after the shooting of Jacob Blake. in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The suspension of play, a decision made by several sports as the athletes threatened to boycott, allowed Osaka to stay in the tournament. She won her postponed semi-final match, then lost the final due to injury.
Last Wednesday, apparently with little warning to tennis officials, Osaka posted on Instagram and Twitter about its decision to skip all press obligations during Roland Garros because the experience is damaging the mental health of players, especially when must answer questions after a loss.
“If organizations think they can keep saying ‘press or you will be fined” and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes who are the focus of their cooperation, then I just have to laugh, “Osaka said. , a four-time winner of the Grand Slam tournament, wrote. She said she would accept any fines imposed on her for ignoring press conferences and called for the funds to be donated to a dedicated mental health charity.
In her statement on Monday, Osaka wrote that she “receives huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media.
“So here in Paris I already felt vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to be cautious and avoid press conferences,” she wrote. “I announced it as a preventive measure because I feel that the rules are quite outdated in part and I wanted to point it out. I wrote privately to the tournament to apologize and say that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.
Players can face fines of up to $ 20,000 for skipping a press conference, although the fines have historically been much lower. Yet tour officials and most players have long believed that press conferences, while uncomfortable at times, are important in promoting the sport.
After hearing Osaka’s decision, the WTA Tour said on Friday it welcomed a dialogue with it on mental health but maintained its position on press obligations for players. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them to share their perspective and tell their story,” said the WTA.
Osaka, however, refused to fold, even as several other major players, including No.3 male player Rafael Nadal and No.1 player Ashleigh Barty, said they disagreed with Osaka and that talking to the media was part of the job. . Osaka, which won more than $ 50 million last year in grants and prizes, did not attend a media day press conference and skipped a press conference after winning the first round against Patricia Maria Tig Sunday in straight sets.
Osaka answered three questions from a field interviewer, Fabrice Santoro, after the game and a few other questions while leaving the field of Wowow, the Japanese broadcaster with whom she is under contract.
Within hours, she was fined $ 15,000 by the Roland-Garros tournament referee. In addition, the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments – the Opens of Australia, France and the United States and Wimbledon – have warned that she risks more severe penalties, including a default in payment of the tournament, if she continued to fail to meet its media obligations.
In the statement, signed by Jayne Hrdlicka, Head of Tennis Australia; Gilles Moretton, President of the French Tennis Federation; Ian Hewitt, President of the All England Lawn Tennis Club; and Mike McNulty, president of the United States Tennis Association; officials said they reached out to Osaka to open a discussion about her well-being and concerns she had about press conferences and mental health.
Osaka, they said, refused to engage with them, leaving them with no choice but to pursue significant sanctions to ensure that Osaka does not have an advantage over its competitors.
“We want to stress that rules are in place to ensure that all players are treated exactly the same, regardless of their stature, beliefs or achievements,” officials said. “As a sport, there is nothing more important than making sure that no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if a player refuses to spend time. time to participate in media engagements while others honor all of their pledges. “
In his Instagram post, Osaka also wrote, “I’m going to step away from the pitch a bit now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways to make things better for the players, the press and Fans. “