Naomi Osaka is a heroine for tennis players after a mental health debate resonated at the French Open

Naomi Osaka is a heroine for tennis players after a mental health debate resonated at the French Open

PARIS: French Open 2022 Naomi Osaka ended after losing in the first round. The players who stayed in the tournament see and hear the products of her candid discussion about anxiety and depression a year ago – from the new “quiet rooms” and three psychiatrists at Roland Garros who were on call, to the broader sense that mental health is far less – a taboo subject than it once was.

“I remember when I came back from France last year, the photographers followed me in random places like a grocery store. It was really weird and a little overwhelming until one day a woman came to me and told me that by she spoke. ” “I helped her son,” Osaka wrote in a recent email
The Associated Press. “It was all worth it to me at the time.”

In conversations with The
AP Shortly before or during the French Open, which began on Sunday, several professional tennis players praised Osaka for helping to get the topic out of the shadows for their sport, and in line with the voices of other athletes such as Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles, helped support more awareness and concern.

“I definitely think it’s something that pays a lot more attention than it did, at least when I was growing up. I don’t even think I knew what it was then. And we see people talking out and normalizing it a bit. “It’s okay when you’re fighting something – it doesn’t matter if it’s on the court, off the court, anything,” said Jessica Pegula, a 28-year-old girl from New York who entered the second round of the French Open on Tuesday.

“In tennis, the life we ​​live is not so normal,” she said. “It can lead to many unhealthy habits.”

Taylor Fritz, the tallest American in 14th place, agreed.

“I travel every week. Never be home. Pressure on ratings,” he said. “Everyone is different, so I feel like I’m a relaxed, relaxed person and a lot of things don’t really bother me, but I definitely understand that it’s an extremely mentally exhausting sport.”

Osaka was not the first to talk about it.

But her position as a four-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 player, and her decision to step down from Roland Garros, explain why and take two mental health breaks last season, have resonated widely.

“Whenever an athlete shares his or her vulnerability, it affects other athletes in the sport. There is a connection,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA’s vice president of mental health and wellness. “So I don’t know that I would necessarily attribute it to one person or one event, but … it makes other people sit down, notice, and say, ‘Well, maybe I should do something about that, too.'”

Paola Badosa, a 24-year-old Spaniard who won on Tuesday, did not dare to talk about her own anxiety.

Like others, she appreciated Osaka’s sincerity.

“We are all human. We all have to deal with all these mental problems. We are fighting,” Badosa said. “And it’s important that players like her talk about it.”

Another recent example: 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian who will face Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencico in Paris on Wednesday, announced in December that she will be serving the start of this season, including the Australian Open, so she can “reset, recover and grow”.

“I’m sure more and more players will comment on it, or some are even taking time off to regroup and be away from the noise. There’s definitely a lot of noise, especially when you’re in the spotlight or winning big tournaments and there’s a lot of pressure on “To support it,” said another Canadian player, 23-year-old Denis Shapovalov, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year. “It’s not an easy era with social media. And one of the keys is that you need to know whose voice is important and whose voice you don’t need to focus on. ”

Osaka told Roland Garros last year that she did not intend to speak to the media. After winning the first round, she was fined $ 15,000 for missing a mandatory press conference (a requirement that did not change at the French Open or other major championships) and was facing another penalty in four grand slams if she did so again.

Instead, Osaka withdrew from the event, revealed what she had been through for years, and decided to take her time from tennis.

“I think everyone was surprised and unprepared,” said Kildine Chevalier, who was hired as service and relations manager with the French Tennis Federation in October.

“It’s important that we take these issues into account now,” said Chevalier, a former professional player who didn’t work in mental health before, “not to repeat a similar situation and prevent it instead of acting here.”

According to Chevalier, new equipment for players at this French Open includes an 850-square-foot room at the main stadium with 11 beds and noise-reducing headphones, a yoga room with daily meditation and breathing workshops, a tea room, nail salon and telephone hotlines for contact with psychologists or psychiatrists.

It is separate from what tours for men and women, such as a member of the WTA Mental Health and Wellness Team, which is on site at Roland Garros. Chevalier said the office was close to hers, “So I see players coming all day … He works a lot.”

These meetings have been available on the women’s tour for years, but Ahlgren Bedics estimated that there was a 30% increase in WTA participation in the first months of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021.

“It’s a pretty big leap,” she said. “If an athlete wants to jump for 10 minutes and say, ‘I’m really frustrated with how training went today, and I just need to ventilate,’ it can be a 10-minute affair. Or the exact same symptoms can be 90 It’s really up to the athlete how he wants to share a lot and what he wants to achieve during his time with us. ”

Rebecca Marino, a former top 40 player from Canada, left the tour for almost five years due to depression, but is now back and won her first place at the French Open since 2011 by going through the qualifying rounds. She notes the difference in the way mental health is discussed today – yes in tennis, but also across societies – and said she has “a lot of praise” for the way the WTA approaches it.

“People didn’t really understand what I was going through with my mental health and why I was leaving the sport,” Marino said. “We now have a lot more athletes discussing the importance of mental health in their careers. It really opened a conversation for a lot more people and created a more positive conversation, which I think is really amazing and I’m glad it’s starting to happen.”

Yet Frances Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland who considers Osaka a close friend, noted that a lot of work needs to be done to make people aware that they should talk about mental health problems.

“Sometimes you don’t want to be vulnerable to each other,” he said on Tuesday after winning the French Open for the first time. “If you complain, then you are called ‘soft.’ But when you think about it, you’re actually strong. Sometimes people really go through a lot from the inside, but they hide it and try to make the facade as if they were super rough. Sometimes it’s enough to verbalize. “You need a safe space to be heard. She was going through some things with Naomi at the time.”

Osaka, a 23-year-old girl born in Japan and now living in the United States, remained part of the public conversation, either by letting people know she was talking to a therapist or by becoming an investor in the role of a major community health advocate for modern health. which is called the “Global Platform for Mental Health and Workplace Wellness”.

It records the meditations that society makes available to the public, and CEO and founder Alyson Watson said Osaka “can play such a big role in destigmatizing mental health” and “really paves the way not only for athletes but also for other people to talk about fighting as well.” . ”

In an e-mail to The AP, Osaka wrote that she was silent about her feelings of adolescence, that she had overcome it, and with regard to her French Open 2021, she added: “I am in a different state this year, for sure.”

On Tuesday night, the day after leaving the tournament, Osaka tweeted: “Those last few weeks in Europe have been a real test of character, but I’m glad I came. … I leave with completely different emotions than the previous ones. one.”


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