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Regional Interests

Naomi Osaka Needs a Mental Health Break From Tennis—Sexism May Be a Factor

On Tuesday, the tennis Grand Slams—the French Open, U.S. Open, Wimbledon and Australian Open—released a statement supporting Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from competition for mental health reasons. It read, in part: “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.”

To many onlookers, the sympathetic tone seemed fairly disingenuous coming, as it did, just two days after the organizations threatened Osaka with disqualification and exclusion from future tournaments. That same day—Sunday—the French Open fined the 23-year-old $15,000 for not wanting to fulfill her press obligations.

Osaka had first announced her desire to stop doing press conferences in a statement published to Twitter on May 26. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she said.

On Monday, she followed that up with a statement of complete withdrawal from this year’s French Open, released via Instagram. It read in part:

I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences … I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.

Tennis stars like Venus Williams, Gaël Monfils, Sloane Stephens, Boris Becker and Martina Navratilova have all offered their sympathy and support for Osaka. Monfils, 34, is another tennis pro who has previously expressed mental anguish over media scrutiny. Last February at an Australian Open press conference, he broke down, telling journalists, “I’m already on the ground. You shoot me.”

While it’s impossible to know all of the elements causing Osaka to take a break from tennis, the pressures on female players—and the scrutiny they’re subjected to—are undoubtedly more intense than what their male counterparts navigate.

To illustrate, here are five times tennis has failed women at the top of their game.

The Genie Bouchard Twirl

During the 2015 Australian Open, Tennis Australia commentator Ian Cohen greeted a triumphant Bouchard with the question: “Can you give us a twirl and tell us about your outfit?” She was visibly taken aback before obliging, undoubtedly under pressure from the awaiting camera and packed arena. Later at a press conference, the first Canadian ever to be ranked in the Top 5 in tennis singles said: “I’m fine with being asked to twirl if they ask the guys to flex their muscles.”

Serena Williams Cited for “Verbal Abuse”

During the 2018 U.S. Open final, Williams was docked a point for receiving coaching signals—something she strongly denied. She was then cited for breaking her racket. Finally, after she demanded an apology from umpire Carlos Ramos—calling him a liar and a thief—she was cited for “verbal abuse” and lost the game because of it.

On the court, Williams told the referee: “This is not fair. This has happened to me too many times. There’s a lot of men out here that have said a lot of things worse, and it doesn’t happen to them. Because I’m a woman, you’re going to take that away from me, and that is not right.”

Williams wasn’t wrong. Though Roger Federer, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi have all received fines for bad language on the court, the expletives they used were significantly worse than anything Williams said. Plus in 1991, there were zero consequences for Jimmy Connors after he repeatedly referred to an umpire as “an abortion.” Andy Murray even got away with kicking a ball at an umpire’s head in 2016—surely a luxury that would never have been afforded to a Black woman. Regardless, the International Tennis Federation later defended the decisions of Ramos and the referee, and docked Williams a combined $17,000 for all three code violations.

Alizé Cornet Given Code Violation For Fixing Shirt

In 2018, the day after tennis fans had sat and watched male player Novak Djokovic sit completely shirtless on the court, Alizé Cornet was hit with a code violation from an umpire for trying to fix her top. Having realized she was wearing her shirt backwards after a break, Cornet quickly flipped it and was subsequently given a verbal warning, much to her surprise. The following day, the U.S. Open released a statement, at least, saying they regretted the citation.

The Serena Williams Catsuit Ban

Serena Williams in her now-banned catsuit at the 2018 French Open in Paris. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In 2018, on the heels of winning the Australian Open and having a baby, Serena Williams arrived on the court in Paris wearing a sleek and practical black Nike catsuit. Despite being an immediate hit with fans, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli told Tennis Magazine that the catsuit would not be permitted in future. “I think we sometimes went too far,” he said two months later. “It will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place.”

Frequent and Widespread Sexist Questions 

Getting players to twirl isn’t the only way female players are treated differently to their male counterparts by sports journalists. After a 2015 incident in which Serena Williams was asked why she wasn’t smiling, three Cornell computer scientists starting researching sexist double standards in tennis journalism. Liye Fu, Lillian Lee and Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil processed tens of thousands of questions posed to tennis players over a 15-year span. And they found that 70% of non-tennis-related questions were directed at the women. In addition to sporting queries, women were also asked about manicures, shopping, cooking and many other things the male players were not.

With all those extra stressors in mind, not only should Naomi Osaka not be penalized for her decision to step back from media duties, she should be held up as an example of what excellent self-care looks like. The way Osaka has been criticized in some corners of the media for her decision is a crucial example of why it was so necessary in the first place.

Copyright 2021 KQED