By withdrawing from the French Open on Monday, Naomi Osaka sent a message to young women in tennis: Prioritizing mental health is crucial — no matter the stakes. Osaka’s openness, in a high-level, high-stakes field, emphasized the need to humanize women athletes, many of whom fight more mental health battles than they let on, tennis players and a coach told The 19th.
Osaka, a Black woman who is of Haitian and Japanese heritage, first made headlines in 2018 after becoming the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title — beating her idol and Grand Slam record-holder Serena Williams in the process. On Sunday, she faced backlash and a $15,000 fine for refusing to attend a mandatory news conference following her first-round win at the French Open. In a statement Osaka released a day later, she cited depression and social anxiety as being among the mental health struggles that makes it hard for her to speak to the press after competing, something that she wrote she’s been struggling with since the 2018 match.
“I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for players, press and fans,” Osaka said in the statement.
For young women and women of color in the sport, Osaka’s story feels personal, opening up the door for conversations surrounding mental health and race. Julie Byrne, a fifth-year collegiate tennis player at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, said Osaka’s move was “brave.” She put herself in the position to face criticism but did it for her own well-being, Byrne said.
“People think that you play a sport, you’re able to just carry on and don’t experience emotions,” Byrne said. She added, “Top professionals put on a face when they’re in the media,” so when someone says they’re struggling, “there’s still a stigma around it.”
Addressing mental health for players is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach, according to Christian Nunes, the president of the National Organization for Women. “Athletes should have access to counselors in addition to coaches and physical trainers,” Nunes said. “Sports’ governing bodies need to listen to their athletes and what they need, and actually act on it.”
For Black women, there’s an additional pressure to appear “strong,” Maryam Jernigan-Noesi, an Atlanta-based licensed psychologist, said.
Research has shown that racial biases — like the belief that Black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than White people — have led to Black people being 22 percent less likely than White patients to receive pain medication. Experts say such biases have real-life implications, and can cause Black women to feel misunderstood after expressing a mental health need, Jernigan-Noesi said.
Nunes echoes this sentiment. “Black women are incredibly strong, and we have to be. I think Osaka’s decision sent a clear message that asking for help is a sign of strength,” Nunes said.
She added: “Would she have faced the same backlash if she left because she injured her arm or leg? Of course not.”
Rukmini Nallamothu, a 17-year-old high school tennis player in Ann Arbor, Michigan can relate to the pressure to appear strong and show less emotion on the court.
“When Osaka was vulnerable and tried to express her own feelings and her own frustrations and be open, she was punished for that,” Nallamothu said. “I get a little bit angry on the court, and I’ve always been told not to … people always told me to keep that to myself.”
Nallamothu along with other young players hope Osaka’s openness creates critical change for their programs, opening the door for conversations around mental health and these unspoken pressures. And so far, it has.
At her tennis practice on Tuesday, for example, Nallamothu’s coaches used the Osaka news to sit everyone down and reinforce their role not only as coaches, but as advocates and resources, should anyone on the team need someone to speak to about their own struggles.
“They wanted to kind of provide that comforting space that she might not have had, and they want it to be another outlet for us if we had any concerns,” Nallamothu said.
A 2016 study conducted by researchers at Drexel University and Kean University, shows that nearly 25 percent of collegiate athletes –– a level comparable to the general population –– struggle with depression, with women athletes displaying nearly two times the risk of exhibiting depression symptoms. Such data points to an inextricable link between mental health, gender and athletic performance.
Such revelations around the role of mental health in sports is causing coaches like Christina Panagoulia Triantafillopoulos, one of the high school tennis coaches for Nallamothu’s team, to ask: “Why can’t we try to do better? Why are we okay with doing things that are really bad for our mental health?”
Triantafillopoulos said she views mental health differently from when she was a player in high school and vows to make it a larger part of the conversation. She said she planned to work harder on knowing her players’ specific emotional needs when it comes to the game to challenge the narrative that consistently tells young women to push through pain.
Now, players, coaches and mental health experts alike are calling on the sports industry to align themselves in creating the same change.
“May we all learn to prioritize our mental health and make decisions, even tough decisions, that will ultimately serve to support our emotional health and wellbeing versus collude with the ever-emerging dynamic of continuing to push through, regardless of the compromise or potential negative outcome to ourselves,” Jernigan-Noesi said.