Tennis greats reverse criticism of Naomi Osaka and say she needs space

Tennis stars walk-back their criticism of Naomi Osaka amid mental health row: Now Billie Jean King says she needs ‘space’ and Chris Evert says press conferences need to be ‘more comfortable’ for young players who can’t handle tough questions

  • Celebrities, athletes and liberal politicians are lining up to praise Osaka, 23 
  • Some like Billie Jean King are reversing earlier comments that were harsher
  • Chris Evert – who was only 20 when she won her first French Open –  suggested the media should be checked more thoroughly
  • She said: ‘These athletes are teenagers and in their early 20s. They cant cope with what a 45 year old golfer can’ 
  • She said she always got on with it, but didn’t like personal questions
  • Osaka withdrew on Monday after being fined $15,000 for not taking questions 
  • She initially said she didn’t want to speak to press because they ‘doubt her’ 
  • Then her sister said it was because journalists remind her that her record on clay isn’t as strong 
  • Osaka released another statement on Monday saying she’s suffered ’bouts of depression for years’ 
  • The French Open organizers said they wished her well and would welcome her back next year
  • The Women’s Tennis Association has invited her to have talks about how to improve the situation for athletes going forward 

Osaka, 23, announced last week that she would not be taking media questions at Roland-Garros because she thinks journalists ‘doubt’ her and she didn’t want to ‘subject’ herself to their tough questions

More tennis stars are reversing their criticism of Naomi Osaka after she pulled out of the French Open on Monday and revealed she suffers depression, following a stand-off with the Grand Slams over her refusal to take part in a press conference that has triggered a mental health debate. 

Osaka, 23, announced last week that she would not be taking media questions at Roland-Garros because she thinks journalists ‘doubt’ her and she didn’t want to subject herself to their tough questions. 

She was fined $15,000 and threatened with expulsion from the remaining Grand Slams, as well as being accused of trying to have her cake and eat it too. Osaka was the highest paid female athlete in history in 2019, earning $37.4million. 

Veteran players spoke out afterwards to say while they sympathized with anyone suffering mental health problems, speaking to the press was part of the job and without journalists, no one would know who they are.   

Osaka then withdrew from the tournament and said she has been suffering ’bouts of depression’ for years. She apologized to journalists she might have offended but said she needs ‘time away from the court’.  

Greats like Billie Jean King – who had earlier disagreed with Osaka’s decision – changed their tune to offer her sympathy. Chris Evert suggested changes to the media to protect young stars who can’t seem to handle tough questions.

Others like 18-time Grand-Slam winner Martina Navratilova – who had told Osaka to ‘woman up’ last week – deleted tweets and replaced them with more sympathetic words.  

King, 77, tweeted: ‘It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well.’ 

Hours earlier, she’d posted a different statement that said in part: ‘I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media… the media still play an important role in telling our story.’

Evert went on Good Morning America on Tuesday and said that while in her day she didn’t mind taking tough questions, young athletes these days don’t seem to be able to handle it. 

Chris Evert – who won her first French Open aged 20, three years younger than Osaka is now – said that while the press is ‘crucial’ to the game, the press conferences need to change to become ‘more comfortable for the players’ 

Evert won her first French Open in 1974 when she was 20 (shown) – three years younger than Osaka is now. She said on Tuesday that she didn’t mind taking questions about her performance, but didn’t like ever being asked about her personal life. Osaka said she didn’t want to face journalists because she thinks they ‘doubt’ her 

She said the press is ‘crucial’ to the sport and has helped Osaka’s brand but that the press conferences need to be updated to make it more comfortable for the stars.  

She suggested putting checks on the media by restricting the press conferences to 15 minutes, banning ‘tabloid’ press and bloggers whose questions aren’t to athletes’ liking and even adding a ‘moderator’ to ‘field questions.’ 

‘There are so many layers to this issue that it would take an hour to talk about. 

‘Most importantly, I hope that Naomi is OK. It’s interesting because I really respect Naomi for being a spokesperson and she has been the darling of the media, that’s what makes this interesting.

‘The media have really helped her brand. 

‘On the one side I have so much sympathy for her but on the other side of the coin is that the press are very instrumental in the growth of the game It’s crucial to tennis, it brings stories to the fans, dissects matches.

‘These press conferences are a responsibility. 

‘But at the same time, it’s time to take a look at the structure of these press conferences to make them more comfortable and healthier for the players, maybe limit them to 15 or20 minutes, maybe check the credentials of the press a little better, maybe monitor or a moderator in there to field the questions.

‘This is an individual sport, it can be brutal at times…these athletes are teenagers and in their early 20s. They cant cope with what a 45 year old golfer can. 

‘The press needs to have compassion with what they ask – it’s putting a lot of players off,’ she said. 

Asked how she managed it when she was a teen star, she replied: ‘I was fine with talking about my losses, I felt like it went along with the territory. I would just answer the question – but when they ask about your personal life…some of them are tabloid, blogs. 

‘Maybe they should check the credentials more,’ she said. 

Billie Jean King tweeted on Monday afternoon that Osaka should be given space and that it was incredibly brave of her to speak about her depression

Earlier: King’s statement on Monday night was of a very different tone to the one she offered over the weekend that highlighted the media’s role in the game 

Evert was 20 when she won her first French Open and she won dozens more titles in the years that followed.  

She added that these days, stars have social media so ‘nothing is eyeball to eyeball’. 

‘They [the stars, the media and the tournaments] need to get together in a room and hash it out in an understanding and empathetic way,’ she said.   

Evert added, in a piece of advice to Osaka: ‘Take care of yourself – so much has happened to this young woman in a few short years. She is the highest paid athlete in the world… just take time away. Figure it out. 

‘She needs to communicate with the grand slams. come up with a healthy solution that’s going to make everyone happy.’     

Osaka didn’t say that she was avoiding the press because they were asking too much about her personal life. In her initial statement, she said: ‘We’re sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.

Martina Navratilova first tweeted this on Monday, saying Osaka had made things ‘worse’ for herself. Earlier, she’d said she needs to ‘woman up’ during an appearance on TV

Three hours later, Martina deleted her earlier tweet and replaced it with this more sympathetic one

‘I believe the whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.’ 

Her sister Mari then suggested on Reddit that she didn’t want to be reminded of her record playing on clay, which isn’t as strong. She deleted that post afterwards. 

Her coach, earlier in the day, tried to do damage control by telling German news site Der Spiegel: ‘In the USA, the issue of athletes wanting more freedom in their dealings with the press is very topical right now. They simply don’t want to be threatened with punishments if they don’t feel well for a day. Naomi knows that it’s important to talk to the press.

‘She doesn’t want to change things for herself alone. It’s a matter of principle for her: she wants to bring about change here, too.’  

Martina Navratilova, an 18-time Grand Slam winner, deleted a tweet on Monday that said: ‘Kudos to Naomi Osaka for caring so much about the other players. While she tried to make a situation better for herself and others, she inadvertently made it worse. Hope this solution, pulling out, as brutal as it is, will allow her to start healing and take care of her SELF.’ 

She then tweeted: ‘I am so sad about Naomi Osaka. I truly hope she will be okay. As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift,’ Navratilova wrote. 

‘This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Good luck Naomi – we are all pulling for you.’

The tone was significantly different to commentary aired on the Tennis Channel on Sunday when, instead of  publicly supporting Osaka, she said the player’s issue ‘is not a mental health issue and is a mental issue’ before telling her to ‘woman up’.

Rafael Nadal and Ashleigh Barty, 25, both said that they have no issue speaking with the media, and they acknowledged that without the media their careers would not look the same 


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Serena Williams, when asked about the issue on Monday, threw her support behind Osaka but also seemed to suggest younger players aren’t as strong as those who have been in the sport for years. 

‘I feel for Naomi. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick. Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to and the best way she thinks she can. That’s the only thing I can say: I think she is doing the best she can,’ Williams said. 

World Number One Ashleigh Barty – who is 25 – said last week that she has no issue speaking to the press. 

‘We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players. I can’t really comment on what Naomi is feeling or her decisions she makes. At times press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s also not something that bothers me. I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest with you guys. It’s not something that’s ever fazed me too much,’ she said.

AOC, the liberal Democrat congresswoman, weighed in on Monday saying she was ‘proud’ of Osaka and others progressive celebrities called for a boycott of the French Open because ‘Naomi is the most exciting player anyway’. 

The tournament’s organizers released a statement after Osaka withdrew, saying: ‘First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. 

‘The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year. 

‘As all the Grand Slams, the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, we remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving every aspect of players’ experience in our Tournament, including with the Media, like we have always strived to do.’ 

The Women’s Tennis Association said that while it welcomed a dialogue with Osaka and other players, ‘professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.’  

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