Osaka crisis throws light on stars' mental health and media 'voyeurism'

·4-min read

Naomi Osaka's decision to withdraw from the French Open, after revealing her battle with depression and anxiety, has cast a harsh light on the mental health of the sport's superstars with one expert even accusing the media of "voyeurism".

The 23-year-old world number two, and four-time major winner, said she will now take a break from tennis, putting her participation at Wimbledon and her home Olympics at risk.

The four Grand Slams said they will look at changes to their tournaments in the light of the crisis.

"We intend to work alongside the players, the tours, the media and the broader tennis community to create meaningful improvements," a statement by the French, US and Australian Opens and Wimbledon said.

Osaka was fined $15,000 and threatened with disqualification from Roland Garros after she refused to honour mandatory media commitments.

She claims they are detrimental to her mental health and likened the traditional post-match news conference to "kicking people when they're down".

"There's a sense of voyeurism around how it presently works," wrote Peter Terry, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Queensland in Australia on theconversation.com, on Tuesday.

"Perhaps some want to see athletes crumble and break down into tears, having put them on a pedestal.

"Osaka is a young, introverted, anxious person. We should by now understand that sports stars are not super human, that they have the same doubts and mental health issues as everyone else."

Terry worked with the WTA for over a decade and sat on a commission which drew up guidelines to help players avoid burn-out and deal with pressure when in their mid-teens.

One of the outcomes was ruling how many tournaments a player could enter before a certain age.

Osaka said her mental health struggles began in 2018 when she won the first of her four majors at the US Open in a controversial final against Serena Williams.

She was just 20, stood awkwardly courtside, covering her face with her visor.

- 'Hard time coping' -

"The truth is I have suffered bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that."

"In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences."

Serena Williams, a veteran of press conferences in a career which is now in its fourth decade, believes all players should have access to counselling.

"I think that's so important to have a sounding board, whether it's someone at the WTA or whether it's someone in your life," said the American star.

Terry insists Osaka is right to avoid the spotlight when she is suffering from depression.

Key is a family support group and, if needed, professional help.

"The media don't meet those criteria. So trying to deal with serious mental health issues in the glare of publicity is next to impossible," he wrote.

"There are considerable forces pushing her toward even greater levels of anxiety. Could you imagine the level of expectations on her at the Tokyo Olympics?"

Venus Williams, playing at her 24th French Open, said she had developed her own defence mechanism when dealing with the press.

"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," said the seven-time major winner.

- Documented struggles -

Osaka's battle with depression echoes similar struggles of other athletes in recent years.

Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps, Spanish footballer Andres Iniesta and England cricketer Marcus Trescothick are just some who have documented their struggles.

German goalkeeper Robert Enke and American world track cycling champion Kelly Catlin took their own lives.

"Depression is a word which has a pejorative connotation and is poorly understood by the population," professor Philippe Godin, a sports psychologist at the University of Louvain in Belgium, said.

"In sport, you have to show that you are strong, almost invincible. It is not compatible with weakness."

In France, care for the mental health of athletes has evolved over the past 20 years.

The National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (Insep) has expanded its team of psychologists.

"We have more and more requests for support from athletes in terms of psychological and performance support," Anaelle Malberbe, one of the five psychologists at Insep, told AFP in December.

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