Naomi Osaka released a short statement announcing her withdrawal from The Wimbledon Championships. Once again, she brought the mental health debate back into the foreground of tennis and, indeed, professional sport.
In contrast to Rafael Nadal, and indeed David Goffin who also withdrew, Osaka made no mention of any physical problems. Whilst both Nadal and Goffin cited physical issues as to why they wouldn’t be traveling to SW19, Osaka simply said “she is taking personal time with her friends and family.” She will, however, be in Tokyo for the Olympics a couple of weeks later.
Should there be a different reaction between Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka withdrawing?
Comparing the Nadal and Goffin withdrawals to Osaka’s, there feels a big difference. Osaka doesn’t give a reason that is as clear, and leaving that vacuum has left space for people to make comments. The Championships, for their part, produced a short tweet of support with Osaka. Her statements and subsequent withdrawal from the French Open stirred up much discussion last month–and now to follow that with further withdrawals bring a big question to the forefront of tennis. Is mental health being treated as importantly as physical health?
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) June 17, 2021
Should more players feel comfortable reporting poor mental health?
When players withdraw from events, they often cite a reason. Most of the time the reason is to do with their physical health. A pulled muscle. Fatigue. Ligament or tendon damage. But rarely do players state a mental health condition.
Even Osaka in this case didn’t overtly state that she was suffering from poor mental health. However, the fact that she believes that spending time at home with loved ones is the right thing for her to do, over challenging for a fifth Grand Slam title, says a lot about her current state of mind.
The general reaction has been very mixed. The message from The All-England Club certainly helps, but it feels as though a sea change is still some time away. There is clearly more understanding around mental health for young athletes, but still, attitudes exist that question whether mental health is even a real thing. It is clear from looking at the reaction from this that education around stress, depression, and all manner of mental health conditions needs to continue and be ramped up, especially when it comes to sports fans.
How come we did not hear about her mental health prior to AO/USO last year? If she suffers from a certain condition, why can' t she cure/ manage it with medication? I am trying to understand what lack of mental health means, and how it affects her other than change in her mood.
— ajde (@MajcinSin) June 17, 2021
Exhaustion is often given as a reason for withdrawals. This is usually understood to be a physical problem, but more and more players are opening up and talking about how mentally tiring the tour can be.
Strength of the mind just as important as strength in the body
The elite sportspeople in the world are often defined by their strength of mind. The extra percentage required to win the biggest titles or achieve sustained success is mental. Sports psychology has been a tool in the armory of professionals for a while now, so it is surely time to understand and, indeed, treat, poor mental health as commonplace as physical injuries.
We all hope to see Naomi Osaka back on the court as quickly as possible because she is a fantastic player. However, the most important thing is that she recovers her health and feels positive within herself. It is under those circumstances that we will see her flourish. Hanging a gold medal around her neck would then be the ultimate remedy. If that is in front of thousands of fellow Japanese then all the better.
Main Photo from Getty.