Naomi Osaka said she was withdrawing from the French Open on Monday, one day after tennis officials threatened to suspend her over her decision not to do media interviews during the tournament to prioritize her mental health.
In a statement on Monday, Osaka also said that she “suffered long bouts of depression” since being catapulted into the national spotlight after a controversial victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open of 2018.
“The best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” she said in a statement. “I never wanted to be a distraction and accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.”
“I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,” she added. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
“Anyone that knows me I’m introverted,” she said, “and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
Last Wednesday, the 23-year-old announced her decision to skip press conferences, noting that the repeated questions, particularly after losses, sowed feelings of doubt.
“If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘Do the press or you’re gonna be fined’, and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their corporation then I just gotta laugh,” she said.
Officials at the French tournament asked “her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being” but were unable to engage with Osaka, according to a statement on Sunday from the U.S. Tennis Association, the French Tennis Federation, the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Tennis Australia.
“Naomi Osaka today chose not to honour her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct,” the statement said. “The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams.”
The four organizations said that they have dedicated “significant” resources to players’ well-being but that “to continue to improve however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences.”
The tennis officials said that if Osaka continued to ignore her media “obligations,” she could be at risk of default from the tournament and suspension from other competitions.
In her statement on Monday, Osaka, who is ranked No. 2 in the world, said she was “not a natural public speaker” and is often overwhelmed with “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media.
“Here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences,” she wrote. “I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that. I wrote privately to the tournament apologizing and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.”
Osaka became a household name in 2018 when she defeated Williams in a gripping U.S. Open final match. In an interview the next year, she said that being thrust into the limelight had been difficult.
“Last year, I wasn’t even anywhere close to this ranking, and people didn’t pay attention to me, and that’s something that I’m comfortable with,” Osaka said in a news conference after a loss in 2019. “I don’t know why I’m crying. I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t really like the attention, so yeah, it’s been a little tough.”
Osaka is often described as shy or soft-spoken, but she has become an outspoken advocate on social issues in recent years, such as racial justice.
Osaka said in her Monday statement that she would take some time away from the court.
“When the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans,” she said.
Doha Madani contributed.