Naomi Osaka: a 23-year-old tennis superstar of Japanese and Afro-Haitian descent, ranked No. 2 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), and the world’s highest-paid female athlete.
She’s also a young woman who has faced enormous pressure during her bullet-like rise to fame. She cried as she was booed by Serena Williams’ fans when she dethroned the reigning queen of tennis back in 2018. (Williams comforted her and called for the abuse to stop).
Now Osaka has been frank about how her mental health has suffered in post-match news conferences, where reporters get to quiz the match losers. But her attempts to avoid the compulsory conferences at the French Open led to her being fined $15,000 by the event’s organisers and, finally, withdrawing from the tournament. The move has started a much-needed global conversation on mental health and sport.
Venus Williams, a veteran of the game, served a perfect ace when asked about Osaka’s post-match conference concerns and how she, herself, coped:
“For me personally, how I cope, how I deal with it, is that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will. So, no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me.”
Damn right, Venus. And while Osaka is just at the start of what looks set to be a superb professional tennis career, it seems her candle is already burning far brighter than those held by the old-fashioned French Open organisers. They could have taken this opportunity to do things better but instead essentially bullied a young woman into stepping back from the game she loves.
This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 15 April 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates