By Akira Tomoshige
TOKYO – Naomi Osaka received support from her country Japan, her sponsors and leading sporting figures on Tuesday after the world number two withdrew from the French Open in a row about media duties, saying she had been suffering from depression and anxiety.
One of the biggest names in sport, Osaka stunned the tennis world when she pulled out of the Grand Slam on Monday after being fined and threatened with expulsion for declining to face the media after her first-round match on Sunday.
The four-times Grand Slam champion had last week signaled her intentions to skip her media duties to protect her mental well-being and she returned to Twitter on Monday to announce her withdrawal.
While her original stance had earned the Japanese 23-year-old little backing from her fellow professionals, most saying that dealing with the media was part of the job, her withdrawal triggered a wave of support from around the world.
“The first thing to be considered is Ms. Osaka’s health. I wish her the earliest possible recovery,” Japan Tennis Association (JTA) Executive Director Toshihisa Tsuchihashi said in a statement on Tuesday.
Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference that he would “watch over her quietly” and there was concern on the streets of Tokyo for the woman who will be one of the faces of this year’s Olympic Games in the city.
“I think she’s under a lot of pressure, more than we can imagine,” kimono dresser Tomomi Noguchi, 67, told Reuters.
“She got to the top when she was young so I think we can’t really imagine what she’s going through.”
According to sports business website Sportico, Osaka earned $55.2 million over the past 12 months – a record haul for a female athlete – much of it from sponsorship deals with major companies in Japan and the United States.
Japanese sponsor Nissin Foods wished Osaka a quick recovery while the world’s biggest athletic shoe maker, Nike, lauded her for her courage in sharing her mental health experience.
“Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritize personal health and well-being,” Mastercard, one of Osaka’s long list of sponsors, said in a statement.
Japanese automaker Nissan Motor Co. also showed solidarity with its brand ambassador.
“We stand by her decision and wish her well,” Nissan said.
Vickie Skorji, who manages a helpline at TELL, a non-profit counseling service in Japan, said society needed to be “more respectful and supportive” of mental health.
“Who has asked her how she is doing? She put out a statement and said ‘I need to take care of myself,’ and she’s been punished,” Skorji told Reuters.
Skorji’s thoughts echoed earlier comments from women’s tennis trailblazers Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.
“It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression,” King wrote on social media. “Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well.”
Williams sisters Serena and Venus, as well as younger American players Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens, chimed in with messages of support as the focus shifted from Osaka’s responsibilities to her wellbeing.
There were also messages of support from athletes in other sports.
“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,” wrote NBA All Star Steph Curry on Twitter.
Four-time Olympic champion Mo Farah told Sky News: “I’ve been in that scenario where you have 40 journalists, you’ve got the camera right in front of you, and it’s nerve-wracking, and you can only support her.”
Osaka said “the rules are quite outdated in parts” and expressed desire to work with tennis administrators to improve things for players, press and fans.
Former British No. 1 Laura Robson told BBC that the four Grand Slams, who threatened Osaka with an expulsion from Roland Garros and future majors, should not have let the matter escalate.
There was also some criticism of Roland Garros organizers for their handling of the matter.
French Tennis Federation President Gilles Moretton read a prepared statement on Monday offering Osaka their support but the irony of him not taking questions afterwards was not lost on some.
“So the FFT handled the Ms Osaka mental health concerns without empathy or sensitivity. Then the FFT President refuses to take questions at a presser. An own goal,” wrote former Australian tennis official Richard Ings.
Six-times major champion Boris Becker was worried Osaka’s career could be in danger because of mental health issues.
“If she can’t cope with the media in Paris, she can’t cope with the media in Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. So I almost feel like her career is in danger due to mental health issues,” he told Eurosport.