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Published: 10:29, May 26, 2022 | Updated: 10:34, May 26, 2022
Osaka's mental health discussion resonates
By Agencies via Xinhua
Published:10:29, May 26, 2022 Updated:10:34, May 26, 2022 By Agencies via Xinhua

Japan's Naomi Osaka clenches her fist after scoring a point against Amanda Anisimova of the US during their first round match at the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, May 23, 2022. (CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP)

Naomi Osaka's 2022 French Open is over following a first-round loss. The players remaining in the tournament see and hear products of her frank discussion about anxiety and depression a year ago-from new "quiet rooms" and three on-call psychiatrists at Roland Garros to a broader sense that mental health is a far-less taboo topic than it once was.

I definitely think it's something that is paid attention to way more than it was, at least when I was coming up as a teenager. I don't even think I knew what it was back then. And we're seeing people speak out and normalize it a bit in a way where it's OK if you're struggling with something-it doesn't matter if it's on the court, off court, whatever.

Naomi Osaka, tennis player

"I remember after I got back from France last year and having photographers follow me even at random places like the grocery store. It felt really odd and a bit overwhelming, until one day a woman came up to me and told me that by speaking up, I helped her son," Osaka wrote in a recent email to The Associated Press. "At that moment, it did all feel worthwhile."

In conversations with The AP shortly before or during the French Open, several professional tennis players credited Osaka with helping bring the subject out of the shadows and, in concert with the voices of other athletes such as Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles, helping foster more awareness.

"I definitely think it's something that is paid attention to way more than it was, at least when I was coming up as a teenager. I don't even think I knew what it was back then. And we're seeing people speak out and normalize it a bit in a way where it's OK if you're struggling with something-it doesn't matter if it's on the court, off court, whatever," said Jessica Pegula, a 28-year-old American who reached the French Open's second round Tuesday.

"In tennis, the life we kind of live is not so normal," she said. "It can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits."

Taylor Fritz, at No 14 the highest-ranked American man, agreed.

"Traveling every week. Never being home. The pressure of the rankings," he said. "Everyone's different, so I feel like I'm a laid-back, easygoing person and not a lot of things really bother me, but I definitely understand that it is an extremely mentally draining sport."

ALSO READ: Swiatek demolishes Osaka in Miami final

Japan's Naomi Osaka plays a shot against Amanda Anisimova of the US during their first round match at the French Open tennis tournament in Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, May 23, 2022. (CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP)

Osaka was not the first to broach this. However, her prominence, as a four-time Grand Slam champion and former No 1-ranked player, and her decisions to withdraw from Roland Garros, to explain why and to take two mental health breaks last season resonated.

"Anytime an athlete shares their vulnerability and their authenticity, it's going to affect other athletes in that sport. There's a relatability," said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, the vice-president of mental health and wellness for the WTA. "So I don't know that I would attribute it necessarily to one person or one event, but... that makes other folks sit up and notice and kind of say, 'Well, maybe I should pursue something along those lines, too.'"

Paola Badosa, a 24-year-old from Spain who won Tuesday, has not shied away from talking about her own anxiety.

She, like others, appreciated Osaka's forthrightness.

"All of us are humans. All of us have to deal with all of these mental struggles. We struggle," Badosa said. "And it's important that players like her talk about it."

Another more recent example: 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian set to face Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Paris on Wednesday, announced in December she would sit out the start of this season, including the Australian Open, so she could "reset, recover, and grow" after two difficult years.

"Definitely more and more players are speaking out on it or about it. Some are even taking time off to regroup and be away from the noise. There is, for sure, a lot of noise, especially when you're in the spotlight or win big tournaments and there is a lot of pressure to back it up," said another Canadian, 23-year-old Denis Shapovalov, a Wimbledon semifinalist last year. "With social media now, it's not an easy era. And one key is that you kind of have to know whose voice is important and whose voice you don't need to focus on."

READ MORE: Tsitsipas survives first-round scare to progress in Paris

Before Roland Garros last year, Osaka said she didn't intend to speak to the media. After her first-round victory, she was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory news conference (a requirement that has not changed at the French Open or other major championships) and threatened by the four Grand Slam tournaments with further punishment if she did so again.

Instead, Osaka pulled out of the event, revealed what she had been going through for years and opted to take time away from tennis.

"I think everybody was surprised and was not ready for that," said Kildine Chevalier, who was hired in October as the French tennis federation's manager of player services and relations.

"It's important now we take into consideration those problems," said Chevalier, a former pro player, "not to repeat a similar situation and to prevent (it) instead of acting when it's already here."


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