‘Athletes are humans’: Naomi Osaka writes on becoming ‘face of mental health’ in Time magazine story

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Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May to protect her mental health (USA TODAY Sports)
Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in May to protect her mental health (USA TODAY Sports)

Naomi Osaka has said her intention was never to “inspire revolt” against media obligations for sportspeople as she opened up about her discomforting yet necessary role as the voice of mental health for athletes.

The four-time grand slam champion has written a cover feature for Time magazine entitled: "It’s OK not to be OK”, speaking in detail about the recent controversy that began with her missing a press conference at the French Open.

“Athletes are humans,” she wrote, adding that she still stands by her decision in France.

In the article she proposes that players be given time off from their contractual press obligations when they need it for personal reasons, in the same way that most ordinary employees can take sick leave.

"Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions," she said.

World number two Osaka was fined $15,000 after she refused to attend a mandatory news conference at Roland Garros. The 23-year-old then withdrew from the tournament altogether, saying she suffered anxiety before sessions with the media and revealing she also experienced bouts of depression.

She said she “can’t imagine another profession where a consistent attendance record (I have missed one press conference in my seven years on tour) would be so harshly scrutinised”.

Osaka said her refusal to attend the conference was not about the press but the “out of date” format of the briefings, which needs to be changed.

“The intention was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better,” she added.

In a joint statement at the time, Grand Slam organisers said the Japanese player risked expulsion from the French Open and other majors if she refused to conduct her contractual media obligations.

Osaka said pushing herself to stand up for what she believes to be right “comes at a cost of great anxiety”, saying she did not enjoy the spotlight as “believe it or not, I am naturally introverted”.

“I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers,” she said. “I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.”

She said her struggles are “all worth it” if she has saved the life of even one person.

She thanked former first lady Michelle Obama, fellow tennis star Novak Djokovic, Meghan Markle and NBA star Stephen Curry as being among those who supported and encouraged her.

She has played since the French Open but said she is particularly “excited” to play in front of her Japanese friends at the Olympics in Tokyo later this month.

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