Tennis star Naomi Osaka said the format of press conferences between journalists and athletes is "in great need of a refresh" in a new Time magazine essay on mental health following her withdrawal from the French Open.
Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1-ranked player, suggested in Time magazine’s Olympic preview issue that athletes should be allowed to sometimes skip media obligations without punishment.
"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 wrote.
Before the French Open began, the 23-year-old said that she would not speak to the media during the tournament, adding that those interactions were sometimes uncomfortable and would create doubts for her on the court. After her first-round victory in Paris, Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping her mandatory news conference and threatened by the four Grand Slam tournaments with the possibility of disqualification or suspension if she continued to avoid the media.
Osaka then pulled out of the tournament altogether, saying she deals with anxiety before news conferences and has experienced bouts of depression in recent years.
Speaking out in the essay published Thursday, Osaka said her intention "was never to inspire revolt, but rather to look critically at our workplace and ask if we can do better." She said she hopes "we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones."
Naomi Osaka during her match against Patricia Maria Tig of Romania in the first round of the Women's Singles competition on Court Philippe-Chatrier at the 2021 French Open Tennis Tournament at Roland Garros on May 30, 2021, in Paris, France. (Photo b
"There can be moments for any of us where we are dealing with issues behind the scenes," Osaka said. "Each of us as humans is going through something on some level."
Osaka said former first lady Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle and sports stars like Novak Djokovic, Michael Phelps and Stephen Curry were among those who reached out to offer her support following the withdrawal. She added that the experience has made it apparent that "literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does."
She also proposed giving tennis players "a small number of ‘sick days’ per year, where you are excused from your press commitments without having to disclose your personal reasons. I believe this would bring sport in line with the rest of society."
"I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to talk about it," she wrote in the essay.
Osaka hasn’t played since Paris, also sitting out Wimbledon, which ends Sunday. She will return to competition at the Tokyo Olympics, which open July 23, and where she will represent her native Japan.
This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.