Osaka’s mental health discussion echoes at French Open

FILE - Bianca Andreescu of Canada reacts between points during the first round of the US Open tennis championships on Tuesday, August 31, 2021, in New York.  2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian who is scheduled to play Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Paris on Wednesday, announced in December that she would start this season, including the Australian Open, to be able to do so

FILE – Bianca Andreescu of Canada reacts between points during the first round of the US Open tennis championships on Tuesday, August 31, 2021, in New York. 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian who is scheduled to play Tokyo Olympics gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Paris on Wednesday, announced in December that she will start this season, including the Australian Open, to “recruit, recover and grow” after two difficult years. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, file)


Naomi Osaka’s 2022 French Open is over after a first-round loss. Players remaining in the tournament see and hear results from their open 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 plays a far less important role . taboo subject than before.

“I remember when I came back from France last year and photographers even followed me to random places like the grocery store. It felt really weird and a bit overwhelming until one day a woman came up to me and said I was helping her son by speaking up,” Osaka wrote in a recent email to The Associated Press. “In that moment everything was worth it.”

In conversations with the AP just before or during the French Open, which began Sunday, several tennis pros credited Osaka with helping bring the issue out of the shadows for their sport, and in line with voices from other athletes like Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles, who is helping to spread more awareness and concern.

“I definitely think it gets a lot more attention than it used to, at least when I was a teenager. I don’t even think I knew what it was back then. And we’re seeing people speaking up and normalizing it a bit, so if you’re struggling with something it’s okay – it doesn’t matter if it’s on court, off court or whatever said Jessica Pegula, a 28-year-old from New York who reached the second round of the French Open on Tuesday.

“In tennis, the life we ​​live is not so normal,” she said. “It can lead to many unhealthy habits.”

Taylor Fritz, the 14th-ranked American, agreed.

“On the road every week. Never be at home. The pressure of the rankings,” he said. “Everyone is different so I feel like a laid back, easygoing person and not a lot of things really bother me but I definitely understand that it’s an extremely mentally demanding sport.”

Osaka wasn’t the first to address this.

But her prominence as a four-time Grand Slam winner and former No. 1 player, and her decision to withdraw from Roland Garros to explain why, and take two mental breaks last season, resonated widely.

“Every time an athlete shares their vulnerability and authenticity with others, it impacts other athletes in the sport. There is a relationship,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA vice president of mental health and wellness. “So I don’t know that I would necessarily attribute it to a person or an event, but … it makes other people sit up and notice it and say, ‘Well, maybe I should pursue something along those lines as well.'”

Paola Badosa, a 24-year-old Spaniard who won on Tuesday, hasn’t been shy about speaking out about her own fear.

Like others, she appreciated Osaka’s openness.

“We are all human. We all have to deal with all these mental battles. We’re fighting,” 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 who will play Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Paris on Wednesday, announced in December that she would celebrate the start of this season, including the Australian Open. so that after two difficult years she could “start over, recover and grow”.

“In any case, more and more players are talking about it or about it. Some even take time off to regroup and get away from the noise. There’s certainly a lot of noise, especially when you’re in the spotlight or winning big tournaments and there’s a lot of pressure to support it,” said another Canadian player, 23-year-old Denis Shapovalov, a Wimbledon semi-finalist last year. “It’s not an easy era now with social media. And one key is that somehow you have to know whose voice is important and whose voice you don’t need to focus on.”

Ahead of Roland Garros last year, Osaka said she had no intention of speaking to the media. After her first-round win, she was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory press conference (a requirement that hasn’t changed at the French Open or other major championships) and from the four Grand Slams -Threatened tournaments with another punishment if she did this again.

Instead, Osaka pulled out of the event, revealing what she’s been going through for years and opting to take some time off from tennis.

“I think everyone was surprised and not ready for it,” said Kildine Chevalier, who joined the French Tennis Federation in October as manager of player services and relations.

“It’s important now that we consider these issues,” said Chevalier, a former professional player who has not previously worked in the mental health field, “so as not to repeat a similar situation and to prevent (it) rather than act, if it has already performed here.”

According to Chevalier, new amenities for players at this French Open include an 850-square-foot room in the main stadium with 11 beds and noise-cancelling headphones, a yoga room with daily workshops on meditation and breathing, a tea room, a nail salon and telephone hotlines to reach psychologists or psychiatrists.

This is independent of what the tours for men and women offer, such as B. A member of the WTA Mental Health and Wellness team that is on site in Roland Garros. Chevalier said the office is close to her: “So I see players coming in all day. … She works a lot.”

These meetings have been available on the women’s tour for years, but Ahlgren Bedics estimates that meetings for WTA players are up 30% in the first few months of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021.

“That’s a pretty significant leap,” she said. “If an athlete wants to come in for 10 minutes and say, ‘I’m really frustrated with how practice went today and I just need to catch my breath,’ that could be a 10-minute thing. Or exactly the same symptoms could be 90 minutes. It’s really up to the athletes how much they share and what they want to achieve in their time with us.”

Rebecca Marino, a former top 40 player from Canada, left the tour for almost five years due to depression but is now back and has earned her first place at the French Open since 2011 by progressing through the qualifying rounds. Noting a difference in the way mental health is discussed these days – in tennis, yes, but also in society – she said she has “a lot of praise” for the way the WTA is tackling the issue.

“People didn’t really understand what I was going through with my mental health and why I retired from the sport,” Marino said. Now that we have a lot more athletes discussing the importance of mental health in their careers it’s really opened up the conversation to a lot more people and it’s led to more positive conversations, which I think is really wonderful and I’m glad this is starting.”

However, Frances Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland who considers Osaka a close friend, noted that there is still work to be done for people to realize that they should talk about mental health issues.

“Sometimes you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable,” he said Tuesday after winning a match at the French Open for the first time. But if you think about it, you are actually strong. Sometimes people are really going through a lot inside, but they hide it and try to put on a facade like they’re super tough. Sometimes you just have to verbalise it. They need a safe space to be heard. She was going over things with Naomi at that moment.”

Osaka, a 23-year-old who was born in Japan and now lives in the United States, has remained part of the conversation in public ways, whether it’s just letting people know she’s speaking to a therapist or by saying Investor secured a role as Chief Community Health Advocate for Modern Health, which bills itself as “the global platform for mental health and well-being in the workplace.”

She records meditations that the company makes available to the public, and CEO and founder Alyson Watson said Osaka “can play such a big role in destigmatizing mental health” and “not just for athletes, but for other people as well.” To pave the way, you also talk about problems.”

In her email to the AP, Osaka wrote about being silent about and getting over her feelings growing up, adding, in reference to her 2021 French Open, “I’m definitely in a different state this year.”

On Tuesday night, a day after being eliminated from the tournament, Osaka tweeted: “The last few weeks in Europe have been a real test of character but I’m glad I came. … I leave with a very different emotion than the previous one.”


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