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Hi Joel,

“That escalated quickly” are the words that come to mind when I think about Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from Roland Garros on Monday. Just a week ago, she was the No. 2 seed and champion at two of the last three Grand Slam tournaments. As a newly named chair of the Met Gala in New York and one of the richest athletes in any sport, Osaka seemed to have the world on a string. Then she announced that she wouldn’t be doing press conferences in Paris, and everything exploded

When Osaka released her statement, I knew it would make waves in the tennis-media world, where the post-match presser is sacrosanct. But I’m surprised that it struck such a polarizing nerve in the wider world as well. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground when it comes to Osaka’s decision: From what I’ve seen on social media, people either believe she’s taking an overdue stand for the rights of athletes, and for mental health; or they think she’s a hypersensitive Gen Zer with no respect for the sport or her responsibilities toward it.

I can commiserate with Osaka when she says she feels anxious about getting up in front of the media. Those anxieties may be foreign to non-introverts, but I know from experience that they can be overwhelming to the person seized by them. I also understand that questions at press conferences are often repetitive, and that players may feel as if their time can be better spent at important tournaments than having to do one every time they play.

On the other hand, I understand the media’s viewpoint. Press conferences, for all of their limitations, are the only reliable form of access we have during big events, and the thought of star players being allowed to skip them whenever they want is the stuff of reporters’ nightmares. The issue is more than simply not being able to hear from Osaka; it’s the precedent that would be set.

What we can probably agree on is that the situation could have been handled better on both sides. Osaka sprung her boycott on Roland Garros just a few days before the event started, offered little explanation, and essentially went silent after that. Then the Grand Slams immediately went nuclear by firing back with a heavy-handed statement threatening the sport’s biggest young star with defaults and suspensions.

Hopefully, in the near future, saner heads can prevail; Osaka can explain her concerns and her ideas for how to proceed in more specifics; and the sport can find a way to work with her, without unduly restricting media access. I’ll be interested not just to hear what Osaka says next, but also to hear whether her fellow players agree with her, or are willing to join her in her fight.

Joel, where do you come down on Osaka’s unfortunate withdrawal?

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WATCH: As the news broke in Paris, Chanda Rubin, Jon Wertheim and Lindsay Davenport gave their immediate reactions.

Hi Steve,

I can’t help but admire Osaka’s courage. For her to publicly admit that she has social anxiety and has suffered many severe bouts of depression is a powerful step forward. When public figures speak out like that and share their own vulnerability, it can do a lot to raise awareness and destigmatize a particular issue—in this case, of course, mental health.

What’s come across in so many of Osaka’s words and actions is her desire to find workable approaches—many that are often innovative and powerful. I’m thinking about how she comforted and shared the spotlight with Coco Gauff at the US Open in 2019. And, of course, last year in New York, when she repeatedly made emphatic statements about the Black Lives Matter movement. Clearly, Osaka recognizes the power of the platform she has as a tennis champion.

It was clear in all of the statements she’s made over the last few days that Osaka was trying to articulate her feelings in a workable way. This is not easy any time, much less during a high-stakes international sports event. What I’ve also noticed is that so much of what Osaka has done is governed by a strong spirit of independence.

Here, though, is where I ponder the entire culture of tennis. Very few sports are as solitary. While that certainly encourages an admirable level of self-reliance and drive, it can also trigger significant insularity. More and more players in recent decades have been raised in isolation, be it parent-driven practice sessions, home schooling, increased amounts of private coaching, avoidance of local opponents, hired hitting partners and so many other factors that can leave a player distrustful and lonely. Building community and finding connection is not easy. Often one hears tales of players—particularly those as high up the rankings as Osaka—who don’t have many friends on the circuit. Contrast this with team sports, which of course have their own challenges, but at least create a certain spirit of camaraderie amid the pressures of competition.

Most of all, I wish Osaka well in finding peace. Beyond that, I’m hoping Osaka’s bold admission of her emotional state can indeed trigger a dialogue, both in society overall, but also within the world of tennis, about the ways to balance competition and community.

Steve, what are your thoughts on the tennis culture, and how it may or not be connected to Osaka’s emotional state?

The relationship [between journalists and players] doesn’t have to be as adversarial, or as distant, as it currently is.

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Joel,

You’re right about tennis culture being a loner’s culture. By nature, it attracts solo performers rather than natural team players. You have to be comfortable, to some degree, with having success and failure rest entirely on your shoulders.

But even if you are comfortable with that, it takes a mental toll. Anyone who plays tennis knows how hard it can be to come to grips with a defeat, and to take all the blame. But only the pros know what it’s like to have to answer for your losses in front of the press, and thus in front of the world.

Taking defeat on the chin and with a stiff upper lip has always been the tennis way, an attitude most famously exemplified by the great, give-your-best-and-go-have-a-lager Aussies of the 1950s and ’60s. Osaka is part of a generation that is more upfront and honest about their mental-health struggles. She may not have handled her press-conference boycott perfectly, but maybe her issues can be instructive. Maybe there’s a connection to be made between the sport’s do-it-yourself nature and the kinds of anxieties that ends up producing in someone like Osaka, who has played it her whole life. Maybe younger players can learn from her honesty and her example.

On Monday, I watched Benoit Paire appear to cry into his towel after his loss to Casper Ruud in front of his home fans at RG. Because of Osaka, I found myself wondering: Should he have to do a press conference now? Yet at the same time, I don’t know who would decide when a player can be excused from a presser, and what criteria would be used.

Joel, do you see ways for tennis and Osaka to work together on her concerns? I know some of our fellow reporters have talked about more training players to handle the media, and creating formats, like doubles mixers, where journalists and young players can get to know and hopefully trust each other a little more. The relationship doesn’t have to be as adversarial, or as distant, as it currently is.

It's unclear when we'll see, or hear from, Naomi Osaka next.

It's unclear when we'll see, or hear from, Naomi Osaka next.

Steve,

Yes, there absolutely are steps all parties can take.

For Osaka, I hope she takes as much time as she needs to address her health. Wimbledon, Olympics, US Open and beyond: Let all of it go. Tennis, compared to health? No contest.

There are a wide range of professionals who can help Osaka address social anxiety and depression. Perhaps she’s already taken steps in that direction. Either way, if Osaka digs in on the health front—and this is difficult given the very nature of the illness itself—she will surely find more tranquility and be able to enjoy the rich life she has made for herself. That would be incredibly inspiring and potentially transformational.

As for the tennis community overall, I see end-to-end opportunities – from the start of a player’s life as a child, to development as a junior, to those who become pros, to the lesser-known post-career decompression phase.

Most importantly, how can those in positions of power aggressively counterbalance the sport’s inherent solitude? When their children compete as juniors, how can parents be better educated about the psychological challenges of solo competition and a healthy need to concurrently create community? In America, this can start at the sectional level. Maybe one element would be the addition of more team-style events for juniors so that they can continue to engage with their peers cooperatively.

Should the player be skilled enough to become a pro, how can they more effectively be trained to grapple with the massive amounts of public contact—with fans, with sponsors with media—that will be part of life as a professional athlete? I know the WTA and ATP have university-like courses they offer new pros. It would be interesting to explore these in more depth and see if they’re exploring a deeper level of insights and coping skills.

As a pro career continues, might there be supplemental, ongoing educational opportunities? After all, it’s one thing to be a new pro, excited about cracking the Top 100. But the heart and the mind see the world differently once a player has been in the Top 50 for a few years. And the emotions after winning majors? That’s another level of challenge and, of course, demands from various publics.

So perhaps Osaka’s statement will open the door for all of us in tennis to evaluate the sport’s culture of self-reliance and find ways to build stronger coping skills and deeper communal values.