The leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments reacted Tuesday to tennis star Naomi Osaka’s stunning withdrawal from the French Open by promising to address players’ concerns about mental health.
The pledge came in a statement signed by the same four tennis administrators who threatened the possibility of disqualification or suspension for Osaka on Sunday if she continued to skip news conferences.
The four-time major champion and No. 2-ranked player was fined $15,000 when she didn’t speak to reporters after her first-round victory at Roland Garros on Sunday. The next day, Osaka pulled out of the tournament entirely, saying she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before meeting with the media and revealing she has “suffered long bouts of depression.”
Osaka, a 23-year-old who was born in Japan and moved with her family to the U.S. at age 3, said she would “take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”
Tennis players are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so; Grand Slam rules allow for fines up to $20,000 if they don’t show up.
“On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer Naomi Osaka our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court. She is an exceptional athlete and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate,” Tuesday’s statement from those in charge of the French Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open said. “Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention. It is both complex and personal, as what affects one individual does not necessarily affect another. We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling and we empathize with the unique pressures tennis players may face.”
French tennis federation President Gilles Moretton, All England Club Chairman Ian Hewitt, U.S. Tennis Association President Mike McNulty and Tennis Australia President Jayne Hrdlicka pledged to work with players, the tours and media “to improve the player experience at our tournaments” while making sure the athletes all are on a “fair playing field, regardless of ranking or status.”
In a separate statement issued Tuesday to the AP via email, International Tennis Federation official Heather Bowler said the sport will “review what needs to evolve” after Osaka “shone a light on mental health issues.”
“It’s in all our interests to ensure that we continue to provide a respectful and qualitative environment that enables all stakeholders to do their job to their best ability, without impacting their health, and for the good of the sport,” Bowler wrote.
Various tennis players, including sisters Serena and Venus Williams, offered support for Osaka.
Venus Williams, a 40-year-old who has won seven Grand Slam singles titles and another 14 in doubles with her younger sibling, said at a news conference after her first-round loss Tuesday at Roland Garros that she finds it “definitely not easy to do press, I think, for any person.”
Asked how she handled that over her professional career, Williams responded: “For me, personally, how I deal with it was that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will, so no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me. So that’s how I deal with it. But each person deals with it differently.”
Others praised Osaka for being forthcoming about her personal story in her statement Monday on social media.
“It’s hard. Nobody really knows what anyone is going through, no matter how much they choose to show on the outside. I had no idea about her. But I respect her openness,” 20-year-old American pro Ann Li said after her victory. “Our generation is becoming more open and open, which can be a good thing and also a bad thing sometimes. I hope she’s doing OK.”
Gael Monfils, a 34-year-old from France who also won Tuesday, offered a sentiment surely shared by many around tennis, from tournament and tour officials to athletes to the sport’s fans.
“We need Naomi. We need her definitely to be 100%,” Monfils said. “We need her back on the court, back [at] the press conference — and back happy.”
Nadal nearly drops a set before advancing
Winning a match against Rafael Nadal at the French Open is downright difficult, of course: He went into Tuesday with a 100-2 career record at the place.
Just taking a set off the guy is nearly impossible, too. So when Alexei Popyrin twice came within a point of doing so during their encounter at Court Philippe Chatrier on Day 3 of this year’s tournament, the enormity of it all was just too much for the King of Clay’s 21-year-old opponent.
“Choked,” was Popyrin’s self-assessment.
Nadal began his bid for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title — and 14th at the French Open, adding to a mark he keeps adding to, year after year — with a, yes, straight-set victory over Popyrin.
The 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (3) triumph increased Nadal’s run to 26 consecutive sets in Paris, dating to the last two of the 2019 final that he won against Dominic Thiem. Nadal won all 21 sets he played across seven matches at the 2020 French Open, which was played in the autumnal chill of September-October after being postponed from its usual calendar spot because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I feel like I was a little bit scared to get injured, no? But that’s past,” Nadal said Tuesday. “This year … everybody is much more comfortable.”
Nadal trailed 5-2 in the third set, and Popyrin was a point from ending the set streak while serving at 5-3, 40-30.
But Popyrin couldn’t close the deal there, double-faulting to deuce. Then came another set point for the 63rd-ranked Australian, but he shanked a leaping overhead, nearly hitting Nadal with the ball several feet beyond the baseline.
Two wild forehand misses later, Popyrin had given away the game. And soon enough, the match belonged to Nadal, too.
“The moment got to my head a little bit. You know, taking a set off Nadal, especially in French Open, is not the easiest thing to do,” Popyrin said.
And then, with a smile, he added: “The guy is solid. What can I say?”
In other results: Top-seeded Novak Djokovic improved to 17-0 in first-round matches at Roland Garros by beating Tennys Sandgren, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2 in just under two hours on Tuesday night.
The top-ranked woman, Ash Barty, struggled through a 6-4, 3-6, 6-2 win against 70th-ranked American Bernarda Pera in her first match in Paris since winning the 2019 title.
Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, pulled out of the tournament with an injured ankle.