The withdrawal of Naomi Osaka from the French Open has the power to become a positive moment of change in world sport.
Something good has to come of this.
Osaka has tweeted that she has suffered long bouts of depression since 2018.
At the end of that first grand slam victory she cried during the presentation and apologised for beating a petulant Serena Williams.
She’s introverted, shy and gets huge waves of anxiety before she speaks to the world’s media.
Depression and anxiety aren’t just words. They are crippling, horrible conditions that can bury the sufferer in a blanket of blackness and terror.
It’s impossible to understand unless you’ve experienced it.
Her decision to refuse to do post-match interviews had become a bigger show than the French Open itself.
She was fined $US15,000 ($19,313) after winning her first round match and stood to lose the same amount after every victory — there were “code of conduct infringement consequences.”
She said the decision was “exercising self-care” and now she’s taken the further decision to put her wellbeing first and walk away from it all.
It was all so unnecessary
Osaka had gone on the record prior to the tournament, saying she would take this stand and stating that the interviews exacerbated her anxiety. Unfortunately, the organisers of the French Open weren’t listening.
And let’s face it, it was there for all of us to see.
The stand-out image of Osaka winning her first Australian Open in 2019 wasn’t the victory; it was the excruciating publicity shots of her at Brighton Beach, alone with a massive throng of photographers, journalists and camera operators crowding her in.
They asked her to spray a magnum of champagne around for the customary F1-style display of bravado and victory. She shook the bottle a few times with obvious reluctance, and a tiny squirt came out the end of the bottle.
She seemed like a little girl frozen in the headlights and so clearly detesting it all.
Imagine how hard that was if she was suffering from depression and extreme anxiety at the time.
Her press conferences are the same. She hates them. They make her desperately anxious. She wants them over and done with it.
And so, what do we get? Short, meaningless answers; nothing illuminating: “Get me out of here.”
It’s arguable that the tennis world is none the poorer without a Naomi Osaka press conference.
And yet, we would still hear from here. She’s good in the on-court, one-on-one interviews.
It’s the bank of cameras and journalists grilling her about why she was no good that sets her off.
It is accepted in most sports and mandated in the tennis grand slams that the post-match press-conference is part of the job.
These are players, after all, who can get paid in the millions and who benefit from the saturation reportage of the game.
True, but it is worth remembering that it is just a job, and the job is playing tennis, not necessarily answering questions about how good or bad they were on any given day.
And yet, if Osaka were to walk away from tennis altogether because of the post-match press conference edict, the whole debate becomes a moot point.
Athletes respond to media differently
There is a school of thought that if Osaka was allowed to veto the post-match presser, it would open the door to the stampeding horde rushing for the exits.
But that discounts the fact that there are those who welcome the attention and like the spotlight and never fail to give good quotes.
Roger Federer’s press conferences, like his tennis, are flawless and entertaining.
Others like Australia’s World number one, Ash Barty, take them in their stride, saying: “We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players.”
Current and former tennis players have come out in support of Osaka.
Asked what she though about Osaka’s decision, Serena Williams said she felt for her.
“I feel like I wish I could give her a big hug because I know what it’s like,” Williams said.
“I think she’s doing the best she can.”
Martina Navratilova tweeted: “This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi – we are all pulling for you!”
So, what’s the good that could come of this?
“It takes courageous people to make changes in the world and we’ve seen this in other sports,” said performance and sport psychologist Caroline Anderson.
“Every time a high-profile athlete speaks about mental health issues I think it creates huge ripple effects in society and not just in the world of sport.
“I think that it’s really positive for there to be strong people out there that can stand up and maybe voice opinions that other people have thought and felt but haven’t had the courage to stand up and make those changes.”
Mental health does not discriminate. A tennis player, a rock star, a business executive, a journalist, a teacher, an airline pilot, a cleaner, a public servant: It doesn’t matter who you are, anyone is vulnerable.
And the tired old line that the success, fame and fortune can somehow stave off a disease has to be laid to rest — it does a shocking disservice to those people who are suffering from anxiety and depression.
Elite sport is not easy. Elite sport is constant work, constant pressure, constant doubts, constant stress.
Elite sport isn’t a barrier to depression and anxiety, it’s a petri dish.
We have to put to bed the idea that a sportsperson by virtue of their athleticism and skill are somehow immune to very real diseases.
They are not robots; they’re not special. They’re people.
Australian sports — the AFL and NRL, cricket, netball, soccer and rugby — have all had their share of players who have decided their childhood dream didn’t match the reality and chosen to walk away.
The same could be true of Naomi Osaka.
Depression and anxiety are not the person. Osaka has been an outstanding advocate for social causes, particularly Black Lives Matter, and she has so much more to offer.
Tennis is just one part of what she is, but right now it’s at risk.
Tennis has to decide whether it owes the players a duty of care for their health and wellbeing over and above their contractual obligations.
The sport has a decision to make: Will it support the person and do what’s right for her, or will it stand by the rules and risk losing one of the game’s brightest stars.