Making Change on the Court: Naomi Osaka Serves Mental Health Concerns

Issue 169 — June 6, 2021

As a girl, I loved tennis. I was never destined to be a Naomi Osaka, but I played regularly until I was 13 years old. Then my family moved to a small town where the only public tennis court was at the local high school. Soon after arriving in town, I went there with a girlfriend.

The court bordered on the street. A few minutes into our game, a carload of teenage boys parked in front of the court and shouted remarks about our physical appearance. We ignored the boys till they left, then packed up our racquets and went home. I never played tennis again.

While I wasn’t physically threatened, the experience was disconcerting enough to hold me back emotionally from playing a sport I had previously enjoyed. It simply shut me down. I didn’t realize at the time the impact that one incident had on my self-confidence and intention.

This memory surfaced when second seeded tennis pro Naomi Osaka broke the tabu against talking about her anxiety and depression during the French Open. Simultaneously, she broke the Women’s Tennis Association rules requiring players to do media interviews during tournaments when she attributed her decision to decline interviews to the effects on her mental health, sparking a major controversy.

To say that women, especially young women, still regularly receive thousands of tiny paper cuts of harassments and microagressions like my tennis court episode years ago, is an understatement. Compound that with the fact that Osaka, who was fined $15,000 for breaking the rules, is Black and Asian and therefore subject to multiples of what I experienced.

The ever-toxic journalist Piers Morgan dissed Osaka, compared her anxiety about media treatment to that of Meghan Markle, failing massively to realize his own racist and misogynistic lens on the matter.

The most harmful thing about bias, whether explicit harassment or implicit, is what it does to the mind of the recipient. Aside from damaging self-esteem, it causes you to doubt yourself. That can quite literally, in an athlete’s case, throw you off your game just as it threw me off the tennis court permanently. And just as it throws many women off balance when they must navigate work cultures that were designed by men for men 250 years ago.

While I admire Venus Williams’ approach to media’s intrusive questions (she focuses on her superiority as a tennis player in comparison to reporters who can only write about the game), it takes time and maturity to build such strong mental resilience. I venture to say that takes as much intentional practice as perfecting one’s backhand.

On the day Osaka set her personal boundary, a friend who had served on the Women’s Tennis Association board back when they were struggling hard to get female players paid equally to men told me she was concerned that Osaka’s decision would set back women’s hard-won advances. That’s an understandable worry when women are first getting in the door, but now female tennis stars generate as many or more views than men.

And what about the men? Don’t they also get penalized for comparable rule breaking? Not so much. Whereas when Serena Williams smashed her racquet and confronted the umpire she was fined $17,000, men such as Raphael Nadal and Andy Murray weren’t docked at all for similar behavior. John McEnroe was nicknamed “Superbrat” for his legendary explosive behavior on the court, and for refusing to attend customary Wimbledon winners’ dinners. But, you know, boys will be boys and there were no penalties.

It was interesting to watch the changing messages as people slowly came to realize Osaka’s mental health concerns were a valid justification for declining media interviews in that instance. Women’s tennis legend Billie Jean King at first tweeted a conflicted statement about Osaka’s decision, saying “I acknowledge things are very different now with social media and everyone having an immediate ability to speak their truth. The media still play an important role in telling our story. There is no question that the media needs to respect certain boundaries.”

In a subsequent tweet, however, she called Osaka “incredibly brave” for revealing her struggle with depression.

While I understand the concerns of those who fear women will be set back if they fail to adapt to what are essentially male rules of the game, the bigger question that should be asked is, “Are these rules the best for the players and therefore for the game in the long run?”

Because here is what is overlooked by most people in the current debate: Male players can break their racquets and act like bad boys with relative impunity because men’s socialization and society’s acceptance of it allows for aggressive response to anger. Women on the other hand are socialized to do the very thing that so often is a precursor to depression — turn their anger inward on themselves. According to the Mayo Clinic, women experience more depression than men for a variety of reasons including but certainly not limited to anxiety and imbalances of power and status. Again, Osaka’s intersectionalities of race and gender plus her relative youth in a sports culture created by dominant white males make her especially vulnerable.

So it is time to question the framework of the question rather than answering the question as asked. Perhaps it’s time for the media to reevaluate the manner in which they pursue elite athletes’ interviews. And surely, it’s time for tennis and the culture of sports as a whole to create a healthier balance between the value of publicity and the humanity of the athletes who make professional sports profitable in the first place.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently . Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

Gloria Feldt is a New York Times bestselling author and co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a nonprofit women’s leadership organization.