There is something sadly reminiscent of my own childhood that has accompanied the brouhaha that became an unexpected companion to this year’s Roland Garros grand slam. Naomi Osaka has been a fixture at tennis events since she slipped into the rarified air of tennis’ elite players five years ago when I first watched her compete on Court Philippe Chatrier. She was shy. It was apparent from first glance that there was something fragile about this young woman. It certainly wasn’t her stature – she’s six feet tall. It wasn’t her game either. She is a wily player who knows how to use the court to advance her game. She understands angles and velocity and she has used them to her advantage.
What she is lacking isn’t necessarily confidence, but something buried. I’m not sure of just what it is, but it’s been there, lurking in the shadows of her being since she became a known player. Now she has been vilified and criticized for asking for something she knows she needs. And, it reminds me of something buried deep within me as an individual. It’s something that’s physical to me but perhaps not visible to others.
Osaka pleaded with the tennis powers that are in charge of such things, to excuse her from the often prying, and sometimes, inane questions that follow each and every match from the majors to the minors that would like to be majors.
Having attended these “news gathering” confabs on many occasions, I have heard the questions that seem to beg for an answer that just doesn’t seem to fit the tenor of the match just completed. I have marveled along with the player sitting in front of the crowded pressroom at the repeated queries that seem to be nothing more than a journalist wanting to hear his or her voice. Yes, I understand that there are “rules” to these interrogations that are spelled out before the first ball is struck.
What Osaka said before this event even began was that she was feeling vulnerable and would try to self-medicate and skip the question and answers and just play the game. A firestorm was the answer to her honest and heartfelt plea. Who did she think she was to deprive a thirsty press who always seem desperate for water? What her honest request received was a barrage of troubling inferences from folks who flat out didn’t understand her forthright entreaty to let her try something to help heal her own wounds that were invisible to others, but not to her.
The reaction reminds me of my childhood that certainly wasn’t atypical of the times of my youth. Many folks grew up with abusive fathers, mothers, and perhaps even siblings. My father used to beat my brother and me with whatever was available – a belt, a wrench, a shoe, and yes, a baseball bat. Crying was not acceptable; no mater what the injury there was more coming with a “stop that crying or I will give you something to cry about”. He broke both my knees with a baseball bat when I was 14 and of course the reprise was the same – “Shut up. I will give you something to cry about.” I couldn’t stop crying and even decades later, I still cry from the reality of that abuse that has been my companion always.
Let’s hope no one has beaten her with a bat, but sometimes words can be a catalyst to injuries that cannot be seen. She asked for understanding and received none. She’s young. She had no idea what the request would stir up in a world that has been hungry for good news after a global pandemic that deprived us all of normalcy. She had no intention of causing the storm that has been fed by opinions about what she meant. She was searching for answers to heal her own wounds.
In the United States, May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s still May today, but tomorrow June will honor something else. That doesn’t mean we should drop being aware of the fragility of anyone’s mental health. Instead of looking at Osaka’s request as a negative to tennis, we need to see it as a positive that she has the ability to recognize something as a positive for her that has no bearing on the negative to someone else.
After all, there are 128 players in the men’s draw and the same for the women. Surely the coverage of tennis shouldn’t hinge on one person’s decision to take care of her own wellbeing by skipping an interview and accepting a monetary penalty.
The ITF did fine Osaka $15,000 for the crime of not making herself available for an after-match interview after she defeated Romanian player, Patricia Maria Tig, 6-4, 7-6. Today, Osaka withdrew from the Roland Garros tournament stating that she felt it was the only thing to do to reduce the Tsunami of comments that negatively impacted the competition that should have been the star from the beginning.
She didn’t stop crying and she received more abuse that made an example of her. Should she have rescinded her plea and toughed it out by attending grilling after the fact? I don’t think so. When someone cries out for help and there is no one that can save her but herself, she did what she needed to do and tossed herself a life jacket that may have done what it was supposed to do – save her life and others opinion be damned. One of the truisms that has followed me throughout my life is that the only person who is going to be there when you need help is you. She made a wise choice. Good for her.
Title photo of Naomi Osaka at the 2021 Australian Open by Tennis Australia. Mural by #paink