The Osaka Accord


Japanese tennis champion starts the conversation on mental health and the media


FOUR-time grand slam tennis champion Naomi Osaka has never found it easy dealing with the world’s press. If you follow her on social media, it’s easy to see her discomfort in social situations, even away from the media spotlight. That all came to a head days before this year’s grand slam tournament at Roland Garros in Paris. 

Osaka announced she wouldn’t be conducting media interviews at the tournament, citing concerns over the emotional well-being of players. Initially though, she went about it in the wrong way, saying the media had “no regard” for athletes’ mental health and that journalists can be guilty of “kicking a person when they are down.” While this may be at least partly true, putting the blame on others didn’t quite generate the universal support she was hoping for. 

When French Open organisers clearly weren’t up for backing down on insisting that players comply with their media responsibilities and began issuing fines, Osaka took a further step –  this time with an honest, self-reflection and integrity that resonated far more easily with the media and public alike.

In her follow-up statement, she apologised for the timing and lack of clarity surrounding her initial release. This time she acknowledged her own well-being, in which she had suffered long bouts of depression, referring to herself as introverted and as having social anxiety. 

Here we had an athlete, who had always been rousing, admirable and endearing, but was now becoming open, generous and responsible. This was someone on whose foundations a cause could be built. 

There are four grand slam tennis tournaments each year. January 2021’s in Melbourne had already been won by Osaka. Paris had become the focus of the 23-year old’s media stance and in the days that followed, she also withdrew from the June/July Wimbledon event, citing the need for personal time with friends and family. However, she is scheduled to take part in the Tokyo Olympics, having agreed to fulfil her media duties and is on course to enter the final grand slam event of the year at Flushing Meadows, New York.

But Osaka, who has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, still speaks about “huge waves of anxiety” before addressing the world’s media. Not everyone is cut out or just downright willing to be a speaker in the public domain. 

After the mis-step of her first media statement, if some still believe it’s cowardly not to face the media when other players do, it was undoubtedly brave to be as candid as she was in her second release. In the United States where societal pressure to be increasingly sensitive to mental health issues is so prevalent, perhaps September’s US Open will begin to lead the way in finding solutions that are more compassionate towards those who find the process a debilitating ordeal.

The organisers of Wimbledon reached out to Osaka and other players on the subject, weeks before their tournament got underway. They have pledged to keep those lines of communication open. The United States Tennis Association which organises the New York event has undertaken to “improve the player experience at our tournaments, including as it relates to media.”

We wait to see if this is lip service or genuine concern. 

If sponsorship, fandom, money, popularity and communication is important to athletes (which it surely is), then media conferences are vital. But there’s a fundamental mis-alignment in forcing players to be there. Whether the process remains compulsory, becomes entirely optional or something in between, thank Naomi Osaka for starting the conversation. We’ll track Osaka’s progress in front of the media both in the Olympics and at the US Open through these blogs at The Gym Pod Academy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the pressures put upon you by work or family, speak to someone whom you trust. A friend or a doctor should be able to give you some perspective and that alone may be of help. Otherwise, seek further professional advice. If not feeling ok about your challenges is ok for the world number one, it’s ok for you and me.

Singapore-based Steve Dawson is a seasoned sports journalist and broadcaster who has covered thousands of sporting events at arenas, in studios and hunkered down in  commentary booths.
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