Athletes and sponsors in Naomi Osaka’s native Japan have joined much of the tennis world in rallying behind the player after she withdrew from the French Open, citing struggles with anxiety and depression.
The Japanese world No 2 left the grand slam tournament on Monday, days after she had been fined and threatened with expulsion for refusing to attend press conferences, saying she needed to protect her mental wellbeing.
Messages of support flooded in after Osaka, who is of Japanese and Haitian descent, tweeted a statement describing her struggle with her mental health since her first grand slam win, a victory over Serena Williams at the 2018 US Open.
“The first thing to be considered is Ms Osaka’s health. I wish her the earliest possible recovery,” wrote Toshihisa Tsuchihashi, the executive director of the Japan Tennis Association.
The Japanese government’s top spokesperson, Katsunobu Kato, said that he would “watch over her quietly” when asked to comment by reporters.
There was backing, too, from one of the sponsors that have helped take Osaka’s earnings to $55.2m over the past 12 months, according to the sports business website Sportico.
Nissin Foods, which makes the Cup Noodle range of instant ramen, said it hoped she would make a speedy recovery. “Above everything else, we wish for Ms Naomi Osaka’s quickest recovery and hope she will continue to perform well.”
Nike praised Osaka’s courage in sharing her experience of depression, while Mastercard said: “Naomi Osaka’s decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritise personal health and wellbeing.” The Japanese carmaker Nissan said it stood in solidarity with its brand ambassador.
Fellow Japanese players had mixed feelings about Osaka’s decision. Misaki Doi said she had been “surprised” by Osaka’s withdrawal. “I can’t imagine what she’s been going through, but I hope she doesn’t regret her decision,” Doi told reporters after making an early exit in the women’s singles.
Doi conceded that attending press conferences after a defeat could be “unpleasant”, but added that they helped draw a line under a match and that she considered interacting with reporters part of her job.
“It’s sad to see Naomi-chan withdraw,” said Yoshihito Nishioka, who won his opening match in the men’s singles. “I wanted to see her compete despite the hardships involved.”
Reaction in the wider tennis community has been mixed, but Sloane Stephens, the American former US Open champion and WTA Players’ Council member, voiced support for Osaka, saying she should be applauded for speaking out about her struggles.
“Having to take a step back and say, ‘Hey, I need to do this for me’, we should support her and applaud her, because a lot of people wouldn’t do that,” Stephens said at Roland Garros on Tuesday.
“A lot of people play through being miserable and being upset and not being able to speak out and say those things. We should be more accepting and allow her to take the time she needs to work on herself and better herself so she can be in a better position to play tennis and be happy and enjoy her tennis.
“But I think there definitely needs to be more open dialogue on what not only her but everyone on tour goes through. I think we don’t talk about it enough.”
Stephens said she hoped Osaka would take all the time she needed before returning in better shape, a sentiment shared with another American player, Coco Gauff, who said she hoped Osaka can “come out better and stronger”.
“It’s unfortunate that she’s going through what she’s going through,” said Gauff. “I can only lend out a hand for support. The Tour isn’t the easiest. I talk to other players and they have gone through similar things in the past.”
After Serena Williams had expressed her sympathy for Osaka, saying she wished she could give her a hug, her sister Venus revealed how she dealt with the pressures of press conferences.
“For me personally how I deal with it was that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will,” she said. “So no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me. That’s how I deal with it. But each person deals with it differently.”
Martina Navratilova, an 18-times grand slam champion, said the situation had made her “so sad”, but added that the issue was about more than attending post-match media calls.
“I truly hope she will be OK,” Navratilova wrote. “As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference.”
People in Japan, where Osaka’s phenomenal rise has prompted a discussion on Japanese identity, said the tennis star had revealed the unseen psychological toll competing in sport at the highest level can take on athletes.
“I think she’s under a lot of pressure, more than we can imagine,” Tomomi Noguchi, a kimono dresser in Tokyo, said of Osaka, who was 20 when she beat Williams. “She got to the top when she was young so I think we can’t really imagine what she’s going through.”
Vickie Skorji, who manages TELL, a non-profit counselling service in Japan, said society needed to be “more respectful and supportive” of mental health issues.
“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 said, referring to the $15,000 (£10,570) fine imposed on Osaka after she said she would skip post-match press conferences at Roland Garros. “I think she is courageous and needs support.”