Naomi Osaka withdraws from French Open over media boycott furore

Japanese world No 2 cites mental health issues and will now take time away from tennis

Naomi Osaka acknowledges the crowd following her win against Patricia Maria Tig in the first round of the French Open on Sunday. The Japanese star withdrew from the tournament on Monday. Photograph: Pete Kiehart/The New York Times

Naomi Osaka acknowledges the crowd following her win against Patricia Maria Tig in the first round of the French Open on Sunday. The Japanese star withdrew from the tournament on Monday. Photograph: Pete Kiehart/The New York Times

 

Naomi Osaka dropped out of the French Open one day after officials threatened to expel her from the season’s second Grand Slam tournament if she continued to refuse to attend news conferences after her matches.

The move was a dramatic turn in the high-stakes standoff between the most powerful officials in tennis and Osaka, the world’s highest paid female athlete and a generational star who has quickly evolved into the most magnetic new figure in the sport.

“I think now 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. I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” Osaka wrote on Instagram.

“More importantly I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly. 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.”

Never before has such a consequential star exited an event as big as the French Open over something that nearly every top tennis player has said in recent days is as much a part of being on the tour as lengthy travel schedules.

Last Wednesday, seemingly with little warning to any tennis officials, Osaka posted on Instagram and Twitter her decision to skip all press obligations during the French Open because the experience harms the mental health of players, especially when they have to answer questions following a defeat.

“If the organizations think they can keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to get fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam tournament winner, wrote. She said she would accept any fines levied against her for skipping the news conferences and requested that the funds be donated to a charity dedicated to mental health.

In her statement on Monday, Osaka wrote that she “gets huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media.

“So 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.”

Players are subject to fines of up to $20,000 (€16,350) for skipping a news conference, though the fines have historically been far less. Still, tour officials and most players have long believed that news conferences, though uncomfortable at times, are important for the promotion of the sport.

After learning of Osaka’s decision, the WTA Tour said Friday it welcomed a dialogue with her about mental health but stood by its position on press obligations for players. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story,” the WTA said.

Osaka, however, refused to bend, even as several other major players, including the No 3 men’s player Rafael Nadal and No 1 women’s player Ashleigh Barty, said they disagreed with Osaka and that speaking to the news media was part of the job. Osaka, who made more than $50 million (€41 million) last year in endorsements and prize money, did not appear for a media day news conference and skipped a news conference after her first-round win over Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday in straight sets.

Osaka did take three questions from an on-court interviewer, Fabrice Santoro, after the match and a few more queries on her way off the court from Wowow, the Japanese broadcaster with which she is under contract.

Within hours she was fined $15,000 (€12,250) by the French Open tournament referee. In addition, the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments – the Australian, French and United States Opens and Wimbledon – warned that she risked harsher penalties, including being defaulted from the tournament, if she continued not to fulfil her media obligations.

In the statement, signed by Jayne Hrdlicka, the head of Tennis Australia; Gilles Moretton, president of the France Tennis Federation; Ian Hewitt, the chairman of the All England Lawn Tennis Club; and Mike McNulty, chairman of the United States Tennis Association; the officials said they had reached out to Osaka to open a discussion about both her well being and concerns she had about news conferences and mental health.

Osaka, they said, refused to engage with them, leaving them with no choice but to pursue significant penalties to help ensure that Osaka did not gain an advantage over her competitors.

“We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement,” the officials stated. “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”

In her Instagram post Osaka also wrote, “I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but 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.”

In Monday’s action, Bianca Andreescu became the highest women’s seed to fall at the French Open so far as she lost a three-hour marathon match against Tamara Zidansek in the first round on Monday.

The former US Open champion, seeded sixth, went down 6-7(1) 7-6(2) 9-7 to the Slovenian.

Canadian Andreescu, 20, served for the match at 5-4 in the deciding set but Zidansek broke back before missing a match point of her own in a gripping finale.

Andreescu found herself in trouble again serving at 7-8 and this time was unable to dig her way out of trouble with world number 85 Zidansek winning in three hours and 20 minutes.

While on paper it was a shock, Andreescu was playing at only her third Tour-level claycourt tournament and her lack of experience on the surface ultimately proved decisive.

The women’s draw lost another big name when former French Open semi-finalist Kiki Bertens fell at the first hurdle, losing 6-1 3-6 6-4 to another Slovenian, Polona Hercog.

Marketa Vondrousova, the 2019 runner-up who is seeded 20th this year, managed to avoid an early exit, battling back from a set down to beat Kaia Kanepi 4-6 6-3 6-0. – New York Times

Women’s first-round results

(14) Elise Mertens (Bel) bt Storm Sanders (Aus) 6-4 6-1, Caroline Garcia (Fra) bt Laura Siegemund (Ger) 6-3 6-1, Tamara Zidansek (Slo) bt (6) Bianca Vanessa Andreescu (Can) 6-7 (1-7) 7-6 (7-2) 9-7, Madison Brengle (USA) bt Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (Col) 7-5 6-4, (20) Marketa Vondrousova (Cze) bt Kaia Kanepi (Est) 4-6 6-3 6-0, Harmony Tan (Fra) bt Alize Cornet (Fra) 6-4 6-4, Polona Hercog (Slo) bt (16) Kiki Bertens (Ned) 6-1 3-6 6-4, (8) Iga Swiatek (Pol) bt Kaja Juvan (Slo) 6-0 7-5, Rebecca Peterson (Swe) bt Shelby Rogers (USA) 6-7 (3-7) 7-6 (10-8) 6-2, Hailey Baptiste (USA) bt Anna Blinkova (Rus) 6-1 6-4, Zarina Diyas (Kaz) bt Heather Watson (Brit) 6-4 7-5

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