(written by Suzi, with significant contributions from her significant other, Ethan Shattuck)

Naomi Osaka is my new hero.

At the French Open (Roland-Garros) Tennis tournament, Naomi Osaka made a literal game-changing decision when she chose to opt out of the media commitments of the tournament. She said she needed to manage her mental health and practice self-care. We have all seen a plethora of social media energy around “practicing self-care.” But, aside from #selfcare, putting our health and welfare, or that of our families, first rarely garners support. Often, when we express needs, we face harsh judgment, diminished professional credibility, and ridicule.

Naomi Osaka was contractually obligated to attend press events, and (according to the contract) failure to comply with that obligation resulted in a $15,000 fine. If she had posted pictures of her sinking into a candle-lit bubble bath with #selfcare on Instagram, people would have celebrated her, but she didn’t need a bath. Instead, she recognized that those press events were negatively affecting her. She set a boundary to preserve her well-being by not going to them and fulfilled her contractual obligation for opting out of the expected interviews by paying the $15,000 fine without complaint.

“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna [sic] apologize to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can… So here in Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious, so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts, and I wanted to highlight that.” (1)

Almost immediately, the backlash was swift and split. Many supported her position, and others derided her. The furious responses prompted Naomi Osaka to drop out of the tournament to quiet the distraction and preserve the tournament’s integrity. One of her most famous and vocal critics is Boris Becker, retired tennis professional. He competed steadily in the French Open between 1985 and 1995. In an interview with Jane Mulkerrins from The Times on June 26, 2021, he said, 

“Is that really pressure? Isn’t it pressure when you don’t have food on the table? When you’ve got to feed your family, and you don’t have a job? When you have a life-changing injury? Isn’t that more pressure? You’re 23; you’re healthy; you’re wealthy; your family is good. Where is the f***ing pressure?” (4) 

Cursorily, sure, the primal nature of the scenarios he named is more compelling. But, arguing that lacking the severity of survival negates all other stress is warped thinking. Survival-level stress is just one type of stress, and the pressure of performing on a global level is another.  That argument asserts that anyone young and living above the poverty level has no real pressure unless they are debilitated by illness or injury. Perhaps Ms. Osaka is concerned about the media dissecting her personal life like so many other professional athletes, especially Black athletes. Maybe she understands that a well-placed boundary can prevent a trauma from occurring or reoccurring. Maybe she understands that unaddressed stress can cause anger, violence, relationship problems, physical illness, and so much more than we understand at this time.

I searched on Boris Becker, hoping to understand his perspective a bit more, and found a June 2015 Esquire interview (3) where he discussed stress, success, performance, family, and well-being. The most striking answers in this interview talk about perseverance at all costs, wealth, regret, and the wisdom gained as people age.

He says, “Even if you’re down and out, you can’t give up. When I was playing tennis, my motto was always, “You’ve got to find a way.”(3)   I wonder what that means to him because from my perspective, when Ms. Osaka chose to pay the fine as laid out in her contract, she was finding a way to stay in the game. She clearly says that the media appearances were causing her anxiety, hurting her performance on the court. She knew her continued participation in those press events would cost her to pursue her actual goal of winning the tournament. Ms. Osaka forged her own way by doing what many other professional athletes want to do because it is widely recognized that the press events add stress and exhaust them. Further, as she paid her $15,000 fine, she asked that it be donated to a mental health charity.  That’s the sort of mature, positive action we ask of celebrities. So, why is she facing rebuke to this degree, especially from a man thirty years her senior?

In the 2015 interview (3), Mr. Becker admitted regret for his “…first marriage. I consider that a failure.And he expressed guilt and regret for his failings as a father, saying,I don’t see three of my kids all the time, so I have moments of guilt. I don’t like that.” Inferring that he made choices to sacrifice his family life for his professional life. I can’t judge him for those choices, and I don’t know what drove them any more than he knows why Naomi Osaka made the choices she made. It’s made plain that he believes that money gives us more options. Money represents freedom. A way to change your lifestyle. The possibility to better your family’s life. It’s a reality…If you’re happy in your private life, that reflects on everything else. That’s the bottom line.” Naomi Osaka used her wealth to purchase better mental health.  That’s all there is to it.  In a moral society, no sentient being should be forced to harm themselves for our entertainment.

Predictably, Mr. Becker is currently under house arrest in his £5 million penthouse, only allowed to leave for work because he’s on conditional bail for “19 separate counts of concealing property and financial information” from his bankruptcy claim. (5) He also recently lost a lawsuit against Oliver Pocher, a German satirist, who said that he was “dragging out insolvency” and committing “criminal acts.”  Perhaps, if he spent some of his time and money on his mental health and dealing with his considerable stressors, his circumstances would be better. Perhaps, it’s by paying attention to the price that the lack of energy and resources her predecessors have put toward their health and mental health that has led Ms. Osaka to make her choice.  Younger generations are supposed to learn from the missteps and mistakes of the generations before them. Otherwise, we can’t progress. We should want better for younger generations.

This idea that we all experience the same kinds of stressors, in the same way, defies logic. Most things we experience are subjective. The way we taste food, the sounds we enjoy, the day-to-day trivialities that grate on our nerves vary from person to person. So much of how we react to the world and each other depends on too many variables to count. So why then do we expect each other to experience loss, grief, stress, or even joys in the same way?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to give each other the room we need to incorporate and process our individual experiences in a way that makes sense to us?

The argument against that thinking is that we live in a society, and we must have rules and our part in keeping things running smoothly. Sure, that’s all true, partial, and neglects the fact that the systems we have now are rooted in oppression, breaking people, families, and communities. In Naomi Osaka’s case, she followed the rules but was still virtually run out of town for not falling in line with expectations. A tennis player dropping out of a tournament isn’t the end of the world. Not knowing how a series of matches might have turned out had she continued probably won’t change anything for most people on the planet. But when we extrapolate the outcome on all the people out there who have been harmed by either requesting a mental health boundary or ignoring their needed boundaries, it starts to form the silhouette of a problem. How much have we lost to the pressure to conform and perform? What could we accomplish together if we allowed ourselves and each other time, space, and support?

 On July 8, 2021, Naomi Osaka published an essay in Time. She said that “[a]thletes are humans.”(2) She goes on to say she felt pressure to divulge her symptoms. Then she recommends that athletes get a couple of “sick days” where they can opt-out of press events with no recourse. We treat athletes like they are machines that we can insert gobs of money into, and they should behave like we want them to, on and off the court. We know they are (sometimes) exorbitantly compensated, and that makes us feel like we own them. We don’t. Naomi Osaka belongs to Naomi Osaka. And she’s not going anywhere because she took a $15,000 day off. 

“After taking the past few weeks to recharge and spend time with my loved ones, I have had the time to reflect, but also to look forward. I could not be more excited to play in Tokyo. An Olympic Games itself is special, but to have the opportunity to play in front of the Japanese fans is a dream come true. I hope I can make them proud.” (2)

She’s a damn hero.


Source Articles

  1. Naomi Osaka: French Open withdrawal statement in full
  2. Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.’
  3. Boris Becker: What I’ve Learned
  4. Boris Becker: ‘Naomi Osaka? She’s healthy, she’s wealthy, so where is the pressure?