Osaka’s mental health discussion resonates at French Open

PARIS (AP) — Naomi Osaka The French Open 2022 is over after a first round loss. Players remaining in the tournament see and hear the products of their frank discussion of anxiety and depression a year ago, from new “quiet rooms” and three psychiatrists on duty at Roland Garros to a broader sense that mental health it is a much less taboo subject than it ever was.

“I remember after I came back from France last year and being followed by photographers even in random places like the grocery store. It felt really strange and a bit overwhelming, until one day a woman came up to me and said that by speaking up, she was helping her child,” Osaka wrote in a recent email to The Associated Press. “At that moment, it all seemed worth it.”

In conversations with The AP shortly before or during the French Open, which began Sunday, several professional tennis players credited Osaka for helping bring the guy out of the shadows for their sport and, in conjunction with the voices of other athletes, such as Olympic champion gymnast Simone Biles, helping to foster greater awareness and concern.

“I definitely think it’s something that gets a lot more attention than it was, at least as a teenager. I don’t even think he knew what it was back then. And we’re seeing people talk and normalize it a little bit in a way where it’s okay if you’re struggling with something, it doesn’t matter if it’s on the court, off the court, whatever,” said Jessica Pegula, a player from 28 years. -year-old from New York who reached the second round of the French Open on Tuesday.

“In tennis, the life we ​​live is not so normal,” he said. “It can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits.”

Taylor Fritz, ranked 14th, the highest-ranked American, agreed.

“Travel every week. Never be home. The pressure of the rankings,” she said. “Everyone is different, so I feel like I’m a laid-back, easy-going person and there’s not a lot that really bothers me, but I definitely understand that it’s an extremely mentally taxing sport.”

Osaka was not the first to address this.

But her place of prominence, as a four-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1-ranked player, and her decisions to withdraw from Roland Garros, explain why and take two mental health breaks last season resonated widely.

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“Any time an athlete shares their vulnerability and their authenticity, it will affect other athletes in that sport. There is a relationship,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA vice president of mental health and wellness. “So I don’t know if I would necessarily attribute it to a person or an event, but… that makes other people sit up and take notice and say, ‘Well, maybe I should look into that as well. .’”

Paola Badosa, a 24-year-old Spaniard who won on Tuesday, has not shied away from speaking about her own anxiety.

She, like others, appreciated Osaka’s candor.

“All of us are human. All of us have to deal with all these mental struggles. We fight,” Badosa said. “And it’s important that players like her speak up about it.”

Another more recent example: 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, a 21-year-old Canadian who will face Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Paris on Wednesday, announced in December that she would not participate at the start of this season, including the Australian Open. so that she could “readjust, recover and grow” after two difficult years.

“Definitely more and more players are talking about it or about it. Some are even taking some time off to regroup and get away from the noise. There’s certainly a lot of noise, especially when you’re in the spotlight or winning big tournaments and there’s a lot of pressure to back it up,” said another Canadian player, Denis Shapovalov, 23, a Wimbledon. Semifinalist last year. “With social media now, it’s not an easy age. And one key is that you have to know which voice is important and which voice you don’t need to focus on.”

Before Roland Garros last year, Osaka said she had no intention of speaking to the media. After her first-round win, she was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory press conference (a requirement that hasn’t changed at the French Open or other major championships) and all four Grand Slam tournaments threatened her with punishment. additional if he did it again.

Instead, Osaka withdrew from the event, revealed what she had been going through for years, and opted to take some time out of tennis.

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“I think everyone was shocked and not ready for that,” said Kildine Chevalier, who was hired in October as manager of player services and relations for the French tennis federation.

“It is important that we now take these issues into account,” said Chevalier, a former professional player who has not previously worked in the area of ​​mental health, “not to repeat a similar situation and to prevent it instead of acting when it is already there.” here.”

According to Chevalier, the new amenities for players at this French Open include an 850-square-foot hall in the main stadium with 11 beds and noise-reducing headphones, a yoga room with daily workshops on meditation and breathing, a tea, a nail salon salon and direct telephone lines to communicate with psychologists or psychiatrists.

That is independent of what the men’s and women’s tours offer, such as a member of the WTA’s mental health and wellness team who is at Roland Garros. Chevalier said the office is close to his: “So I see players coming in all day. … She is working a lot.”

Those meetings have been available for years on the women’s tour, but Ahlgren Bedics estimated that there has been a 30% increase in sessions for WTA players during the opening months of 2022, compared to the first quarter of 2021.

“That’s a pretty significant jump,” he said. “If an athlete wants to show up for 10 minutes and say, ‘I’m really frustrated with the way practice went today and I just need to vent,’ that could be a 10-minute thing. Or the exact same symptoms could be 90 minutes. It really depends on the athlete how much he wants to share and what he wants to accomplish in his time with us.”

Rebecca Marino, a former Canadian player who was in the top 40, left the tour for nearly five years due to depression, but is now back, earning her first French Open berth since 2011 by making it through the qualifying rounds. She notes a difference in the way mental health is discussed these days – in tennis, yes, but also in society – and said she gets “a lot of praise” for the way the WTA deals with the matter.

“People didn’t really understand what I was going through with my mental health and why I was pulling away from the sport,” Marino said. “Now we have many more athletes who are discussing the importance of mental health in their careers. It’s really opened up the conversation to a lot more people and created a more positive conversation, which I think is really wonderful and I’m glad that’s starting to happen.”

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Still, Frances Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland who considers Osaka a close friend, said there is work to be done before people realize they need to talk about mental health issues.

“Sometimes you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable with each other,” he said on Tuesday after winning a French Open match for the first time. “If you complain, they call you ‘soft’. But when you think about it, you are actually strong. Sometimes people are really going through a lot of internal stuff, but they hide it and try to put on a front like they’re super tough. Sometimes you just need to verbalize it. You need a safe space to be heard. With Naomi, she was going through some things at the time.”

Osaka, a 23-year-old who was born in Japan and now lives in the United States, has remained a part of the conversation publicly, whether it’s simply letting people know she’s talking to a therapist or by becoming an investor with a role as lead community health advocate for Modern Health, which bills itself as a “global workplace mental health and wellness platform.”

She records the meditations the company makes available to the public, and CEO and founder Alyson Watson said Osaka “can play such a big role in de-stigmatizing mental health” and “really paves the way, not only for the athletes, but also for other people, to talk about the fight as well.”

In her email to The AP, Osaka wrote about keeping quiet about her feelings growing up, overcoming that, and, regarding her 2021 French Open, added: “This year, I’m in a different state, for sure.”

On Tuesday night, a day after leaving the tournament, osaka tweeted: “These last few weeks in Europe have been a real test of character, but I’m glad I came. … I am leaving with a completely different emotion than before.”

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