Naomi Osaka Returns to the Tennis Court Still Championing Mental Health Awareness
Naomi Osaka became an international household name in 2018 when she became the first Japanese woman to win a US Open Championship Grand Slam final against Serena Williams. Now she is going for gold at the Tokyo Olympics, but with a newfound attitude.
Osaka's trajectory as a tennis player has been one of breaking barriers. She is the first Japanese-Haitian woman tennis player ranked No. 1 by the Women's Tennis Association, and a four-time Grand Slam singles champion.
But for Osaka, being a tennis champion is all about the game and not the fame. She made this very clear in May when she announced during the French Open in Paris that she would not be conducting any news conferences due to the effect these had on her mental health.
The 23-year-old even publicly withdrew from the tournament, sharing a statement on Instagram.
"I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players, and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focus on the tennis going on in Paris," she wrote. "The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depressions since the US Open in 2018 and I had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I'm introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety."
Her statement sparked mixed feelings among the press, but fans identified with her and sent supportive messages. Now, a Netflix documentary series offers further insight into the champion's introverted nature and mental health struggles.
"Before I won the US Open, I was flying under the radar. So, people wouldn't really care if I won or lost," she says in the first episode of the documentary. "And I think that becoming number one I really internalized... pressure. And now I feel like I want to be the best tennis player in the world."
The documentary mirrors Osaka's messaging: above all, she's a human being, she's afraid of sleeping alone in her new home, of disappointing her parents, of letting down her fans who see her as an example for being a bi-racial athlete. Still, she shows up to play her favorite sport and has the strength to bow out to put herself first.
"It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does," she wrote in Time magazine. "The number of messages I received from such a vast cross-section of people confirms that. I think we can almost universally agree that each of us is human and subject to feelings and emotions."
Osaka has expressed that despite her desire to stay away from traditional press conferences, she loves the press and giving one-on-one interviews where she can connect with reporters more deeply. She is proving this at the Olympic tournament in Tokyo, where she already secured her first win on Sunday.
"For me, right now I feel very, very proud," she told the media. "When I lit the flame, I was super honored. That's a position that you dream about and not anyone can do it. And so, for me, when they asked me if I wanted to, I was very surprised, very honored —and I'm just happy to be here and happy to play, especially in Tokyo."