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 in Paris 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 United States 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, US 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, US 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 e-mail, 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 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: “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 percent,” Monfils said. “We need her back on the court, back [at] the press conference — and back happy.”
On the court in Paris on Tuesday, Rafael Nadal began his bid for a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam title — and 14th at the French Open — with a straight-set victory over Alexei Popyrin.
The 6-3, 6-2, 7-6 (7-3) 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 pandemic.
As good as Nadal is at Roland Garros, he is seeded only No. 3, because the French Open sticks strictly to the rankings to determine its seedings. That left him behind No. 2 Daniil Medvedev, a two-time Grand Slam finalist, and No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who owns 18 major titles.
Djokovic improved to 17-0 in first-round matches at Roland Garros by beating Tennys Sandgren, 6-2, 6-4, 6-2, in a little less than two hours on Tuesday night.
Djokovic saved all six break points he faced and compiled a total of 33 winners in the last match of the clay-court tournament’s first round.
American teenager Coco Gauff won her first match as a seeded player at any Grand Slam tournament.
The 17-year-old and 24th-seeded Gauff erased set points before pulling out the opening tiebreaker and went on to beat Aleksandra Krunic, 7-6 (13-11), 6-4.
Elsewhere, Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, pulled out of the tournament because of an injured ankle, while No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev lost his opening match in five sets.
Dealing with a left hip problem, 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.
Barty decided not to try to defend her title last year because of the pandemic, choosing instead to remain home in Australia.
Samuel Petrequin of the Associated Press contributed to this report from Paris.