Japan, sponsors join athletes to support Osaka after French Open withdrawal
Concern in Tokyo for tennis star who will be among faces of Olympics this summer
Naomi Osaka received support from her country Japan, her sponsors and leading sporting figures on Tuesday after the world No. 2 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 $15,000 US and threatened with expulsion for declining to face the media after her first-round match on Sunday.
Tennis players are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so; Grand Slam rules allow for fines up to $20,000 if they don't show up.
The four-time 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.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference 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."
WATCH | Osaka pulls out of French Open citing battle with depression, anxiety:
Also Tuesday, the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments promised to address players' concerns about mental health.
The pledge came in a statement signed by the same four tennis administrators who threatened the possibility of disqualification or suspension for Osaka on Sunday if she continued to skip news conferences.
"On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court. She is an exceptional athlete and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate," Tuesday's statement from those in charge of the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open said.
"Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention. It is both complex and personal, as what affects one individual does not necessarily affect another. We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling and we empathize with the unique pressures tennis players may face."
In a separate statement issued Tuesday to the AP via email, International Tennis Federation official Heather Bowler the sport will "review what needs to evolve" after Osaka "shone a light on mental health issues."
"It's in all our interests to ensure that we continue to provide a respectful and qualitative environment that enables all stakeholders to do their job to their best ability, without impacting their health, and for the good of the sport," Bowler wrote.
According to sports business website Sportico, Osaka earned $55.2 million US 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 company, Nike, lauded her for her courage in sharing her mental health experience.
'We support her and admire her courage'
"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.
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.
"I think she is courageous and needs support."
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."
Sisters Serena and Venus Williams, 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 well-being.
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.
I feel for her, because I have been struggling a lot as well.— Tennis player Gael Monfils on Naomi Osaka's mental health issues
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.
Gael Monfils, a 34-year-old from France who also won Tuesday in Paris, said he could relate to Osaka's concerns to an extent.
And then Monfils offered a sentiment surely shared by many around tennis, from tournament and tour officials to athletes to the sport's fans.
"We need Naomi. We need her definitely to be 100 per cent," Monfils said. "We need her back on the court, back [at] the press conference — and back happy."
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-time 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.