Tennis star Naomi Osaka’s dramatic withdrawal from the French Open after a row with tournament authorities over post-match press duties has highlighted how a new generation of top athletes is challenging the power of the leagues they work for and advocating for social change. 

In announcing her decision, the number-two ranked Osaka, who is the best paid female athlete in the world, revealed that she had been battling depression and said she was taking care of herself by avoiding questioning that amounted to “kicking a person when they were down”.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” Osaka posted on Twitter, adding that she would take a break from the sport for an unspecified period.

“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 I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.”

The episode has reverberated around the sports world because it highlights a generational shift between athletes willing to comply with the long-established norms set by sports authorities, and younger players willing to engage in social activism and speak directly to fans on social media. 

Many sports stars rallied behind Osaka. Stephen Curry, the US basketball star, voiced “major respect” for Osaka for “taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own”. Tennis champion Serena Williams said she wished she could hug Osaka because she knew what it was like to struggle with the pressures of the game, while Billie Jean King, the women’s tennis pioneer, said she was “incredibly brave”.

The French Open and other “Grand Slam” tennis tournaments obligate players to take part in post-match press conferences, with the traditional media’s access to players being one of the primary ways organisers promote their events on television and in the press.

But some players have questioned the utility of such appearances. Osaka had been fined $15,000 for not appearing in front of the media after her first round victory on Sunday and had been threatened with stiffer sanctions, including potentially being thrown out of the tournament. 

In her initial statement on May 26 that she would not be doing interviews during the tournament, she did not disclose her mental health issues. It remains unclear if she informed the tournament of them before withdrawing.

The four Grand Slam tournaments said in a joint statement four days later that they had tried “unsuccessfully to speak with [Osaka] to check on her wellbeing, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site”.

Shortly afterwards, the French Open posted a tweet praising players such as Spain’s Rafael Nadal and Coco Gauff of the US for attending press conferences, writing: “They understood the assignment.” It was later deleted.

Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation, on Tuesday struck a more conciliatory note, saying: “First of all we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery . . . and remain very committed to all athletes’ wellbeing.”

The new era of athlete activism took off in 2016 when National Football League player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the US national anthem before games to protest against police brutality, for which he was in effect ostracised from the league. 

The Black Lives Matter movement and the coronavirus pandemic have given players from the US National Basketball Association to England’s Premier League new urgency to advocate publicly on the issues they care about. That has led to a reckoning within sports governing bodies, who depend on top athletes’ star power to attract fans and drive business. 

The 24-year-old Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Haitian father in Japan and raised there and in the US, has been at the forefront of this shift. Last year she took the court at the US Open wearing masks emblazoned with the names of black victims of police brutality in the US, including Breonna Taylor.

Osaka, winner of four Grand Slam titles, is the world’s highest paid female athlete, according to Forbes, earning $37m in 2020, mainly through corporate sponsors including Nike, All Nippon Airways and Nissan. 

She had been expected to compete in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, with organisers pinning their hopes on Osaka bringing glory to the host nation. It is now unclear when she will return to the court.

In Japan, where Osaka has a passionate fan base, her withdrawal from the French Open reached the country’s highest political echelons.

“We should calmly keep an eye on the situation for now [until she recovers],” said Katsunobu Kato, chief cabinet secretary.

Tim Crow, a sports marketing expert, suggested corporate sponsors had become increasingly uncomfortable with the post-match press conferences and their often adversarial tone.

“It’s part of the job . . . but like all these things, we’re in a world where people are starting to question these norms, and asking ‘is there a better way of doing these things?’” he said. “In the mental health issues that Naomi is talking about, it’s not in the athlete’s interest. We’re talking about sport here, it’s not curing cancer, it’s not life or death.”

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