In a controversial move, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open in early May, choosing to prioritize her mental health over a major tennis tournament. The 23-year-old is ranked second in the world and touts several titles at the U.S. and Australian Opens. With a record as one of the fastest servers in history as well as a forehand recorded at 100 mph, Osaka is nothing short of an ambitious and talented woman.
Yet, her withdrawal from the game was met with backlash. Labeled as lazy and weak by groups of people who have yet to win their first tennis tournament, Osaka quickly became the face of Generation Z, a group of people born between 1997 and 2015. Her work ethic and drive were discredited in the face of her withdrawal. Many quickly assumed that a break for mental health was an excuse for weakness.
However, Osaka’s decision was driven by the anxiety she experienced from attending mandatory press conferences during the long tournaments, something many haven’t experienced but were still quick to make judgments against. Since it was part of her career, it was only natural that she attended press conferences, right?
Wrong. Very wrong.
If Osaka can handle the stress of clay courts with confidence, then it is not an issue of her being unable to handle her job — which is on the court and not with the press. Instead, it is an issue of us assuming that the drive harbored within athletes can be leached from them by draining, lengthy press conferences after hours of competing. Speaking to an international media takes its toll on one’s mental health. We should take it from someone who has been through more than a handful of press conferences.
From our comfortable chairs, we try to speak for the lives we haven’t lived, so our experiences are narrow and do not fully encompass a situation that has been permeating the world of sports for decades.
With Osaka’s list of accolades and accomplishments, it can be easy to assume that she is tough as nails, but it is these very nails that pick away at her until she is forced to withdraw over press conferences that she labels an “outdated” tradition.
The withdrawal marks the rise against ambition, but not in any traditional sense. It is not a revolt against hard work, because Osaka has put in thousands of hours to be ranked among the top female tennis players in the world. It is not a revolt against having drive, because Osaka has proven that she doesn’t quit, even when competing against some of the most decorated tennis players in history and still beating them.
The rise against ambition is one where we recognize that our desires to create the greatest in the world can create the least mentally healthy person in every other aspect. Many of us will never face the levels of criticism Osaka has faced throughout the years. We won’t be booed by thousands of people for winning against longtime favorite Serena Williams. We won’t sit through hours of press conferences with international media outlets distorting our words and fitting them into an agenda entirely different from someone who simply wants to play tennis.
Our world sets ambitious and lofty goals, pushing our athletes to be greater and better, but draining them through endless interviews and conferences is beyond what is expected of them.
Most likely unintentionally, Osaka chose an opportune time to withdraw and to advocate for her own mental health, shortly before the most internationally recognized competition for athletes.
With the Olympics preparing to dominate the world stage, hundreds of athletes will be placed in a competitive, intense arena where they will vie for titles that are only earned through stress and ambition. Osaka’s decision to prioritize her health should be a turning point for many other athletes who wish to continue doing what they love without bargaining for the freedom to choose when they want to speak to the press.
Osaka has every right to place her health, whether that is physical or mental, above the community that exploits her for profit. After all, Osaka is the world’s most marketable athlete, according to a Forbes article published in 2020.
Maybe, next time, we should remember her value and respect her decisions.
She doesn’t deserve to take this hit when she is already served so many on the court.
Emelia Richling is a junior at Northwest High School.