“The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.” — Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the 2021 French Open just days after it began seemed excessive, yet worthy of support at the time. Now, I’m not so sure. Had she decided to fight through her anxiety, she might have added her first French Open and fifth major title to her already impressive young career.
Instead, Unseeded Barbora Krejcikova, a doubles specialist from the Czech Republic, took advantage of Osaka’s withdrawal and the early ouster of other favorites, including all-time great Serena Williams, by capturing her first major singles title. Unseeded Krejcikova, 25, defeated No. 31 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the final. Krejcikova thanked her Czech Republican compatriot Martina Navratilova and “everyone back home,” she said. “I cannot believe I won a [major title].”
In her withdrawal statement, Osaka based her anxiety in Paris on “long bouts of depression” she has experienced since the U.S. Open in 2018. Ironically, the then 20-year-old found little joy when she captured her first major title, defeating childhood idol, Serena Williams 6-2, 6-4 in the 2018 U.S. Open final. Visibly shaken and saddened after Serena received three code violations and a game penalty during the second set, Osaka covered her eyes with her cap and wept quietly at courtside after the match. She managed a smile when Serena embraced her warmly after the match. “Serena hugged me, and it was really awesome,” Osaka said. “I felt like a little girl. She was nice to me at the net and at the podium.”
When Osaka won the Australian Open earlier this year, she became only the third active player on the WTA Tour to have won four major titles. The other two: Serena (23) and Venus Williams (7). The Williams sisters and Osaka have formed a special friendship and are outspoken advocates against gender discrimination and systemic racism. On her Twitter feed, Osaka signaled her support of the Black Lives Matter movement saying, “George Floyd’s murder and the situation generally in America has had a big impact on me. I’m vocal because I believe in the movement and want to try to use my platform to facilitate change.”
Accused by one of her Twitter followers of being racist toward white people, a feisty Osaka said, “My condolences to you. I know it must be hard to be illiterate … Everyone should have a voice in the matter and use it. That some people have said we as athletes should stick to sports is really insulting. Being silent is never the answer.”
Osaka says she’s an introvert who becomes “vulnerable and anxious” when facing the international tennis media. “I would never trivialize mental health …” she said in her statement. Her suggestion for the pro tour leadership to be more assertive in controlling unruly and/or hostile questioners, particularly when they are directed to teenaged and rookie pros. Osaka hopes to meet with International Tennis Federation (ITF) officials soon after the French Open. “I’m gonna take some time away from the court now,” she says. “I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
The Williams sisters expressed support of Osaka during her troubling times of emotional fragility. Serena wished she could give her a hug. “Not everyone is the same,” Serena said. “I’m thick. Other people are thick. Everyone handles things differently.” Venus echoed Serena’s position.
Tracing her “long bouts with depression” to the 2018 U.S. Open might suggest that Osaka’s anxiety might be linked more with her matchups with Serena than facing the international media. Osaka fulfilled every young players dream of defeating their idol on one of the tennis world’s iconic courts (Arthur Ashe Stadium). At the time, Serena, already considered by many to be the GOAT (Greatest of All Time), was one victory away from tying Margaret Court’s record of 24 major titles. Earlier this year, Osaka once again stopped Serena from reaching a record she so strongly covets in the 2021 Australian Open semifinals. Thus far, Serena was beaten by Osaka in the final or semifinals of two of the major events she’s played since winning her 23rd major title at the 2017 Australian Open. A potential Osaka vs. Serena matchup in the French Open semifinal didn’t materialize, thanks to Osaka’s 2nd round withdrawal and Serena’s fourth-round loss.
Last week, Osaka withdrew from a Berlin, Germany event, a warmup to Wimbledon. Serena, 39, has won a record seven singles titles on the grass court surface and it might be her best chance to win a record-tying 24th major title. Will Osaka’s fear of the media also stop her from playing Wimbledon? Or might she embrace her role as the key spoiler who kept the GOAT from winning No. 24?