Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
Twenty-three-year-old tennis player and four-time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka stunned the tennis community this week by dropping out of the in-progress French Open, one of the year’s major tournaments, announcing on social media that she will “take some time away from the court.”
If you think Osaka was being irrational, I urge you to remember a few things. She is not a performer, but an athlete, and a young one at that. The truth is that her ability to give media interviews has little to do with the talent for which she is famous. It’s not what she’s celebrated for. It’s not why we know her name. That is why forcing her to choose between her mental health and a few media sound bites was entirely unnecessary. We don’t need to hear from her to appreciate her skill on the court. We do not need to drive her out of her career in order to punish her for failing to perform.
Her decision was surprising, but not entirely out of the blue. Earlier, Osaka had announced that she would be opting out of the tournament’s “mandatory” media interviews, citing mental health concerns, including a history of depression. She hoped that any fines issued would go toward mental health awareness. And, indeed, fines were issued: Osaka was penalized $15,000 for skipping her post-match news conference after her win over Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig.
But Open organizers didn’t stop there, issuing a news release threatening to expel her from the tournament if she kept it up.
And so, she quit.
In attempting to force her hand, they essentially forced her out.
In a lengthy social media post on Monday explaining her withdrawal, Osaka elaborated on her struggles. She cited “huge waves of anxiety” in speaking to the media. “I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give (the media) the best answers I can,” she wrote in a post to Twitter. She wrote of feeling “vulnerable and anxious” while in Paris, “so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Osaka first came into the spotlight at the 2018 US Open when her historic win against Serena Williams received boos from a crowd convinced that Williams was unfairly targeted by the umpire. What should have been an extraordinarily joyous occasion, her first major victory and the event that catapulted her into public recognition, was instead one that made her cry, both immediately following the match and when she went to collect her trophy. ESPN declared that “Naomi Osaka was denied her magic moment.”
Is it any surprise, then, that Osaka may not exactly welcome the public side of playing her chosen sport? Or be inclined to play nice to an audience that had treated her so poorly? Frankly, it’s no surprise at all. So why should the World Tennis Association, or anyone else, demand otherwise?
Simply put, it’s because the world has unrealistic expectations of celebrities and athletes. We believe the public nature of their fame entitles us access to their private lives. In several recent interviews, such as one with podcaster Dax Shepard, Prince Harry has talked openly of his own mental health struggles and of the pressures he and his wife, Meghan Markle, have felt as objects of media fascination, pressures so severe that Markle thought of suicide.
Like Prince Harry, Osaka did not entirely choose her fame.
Many of her fellow athletes agreed with her decision. Steph Curry tweeted, “you shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this – but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. major respect @naomiosaka.” Martina Navratilova tweeted her support of Osaka, noting that “as athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference.” Serena Williams offered her support, too.
Perhaps even more significant is the support Osaka has received from brands including Nike and Mastercard. This is an important step in the right direction of treating athletes and celebrities as human beings and not commodities. And a smart step, too – brands must know that endorsements mean nothing if their athletes aren’t healthy.
Some tennis players, of course – including Rafael Nadal and Sofia Kenin – have come out to say that speaking to reporters is part of the job. But just because something has been part of the job needn’t mean it should be, or that it should be for everyone. Osaka didn’t just decide she didn’t feel like giving interviews. She was forced to make a choice, and she chose herself. That takes courage, courage that is a shame she had to muster at all. Because in the end, the tennis world has lost a great, at least for now – a point that deserves much more attention.