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Osaka Withdraws From French Open After Dispute Over Media Appearances


Naomi Osaka, one of the top tennis players in the world, withdrew from the French Open. Organizers had fined her $15,000 for skipping a news conference. Elite tennis players are contractually obliged to talk to the press after matches. But Osaka said the press appearances were hurting her mental health and that she's going to take some time away from the court.

With me now, USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan. Good morning, Christine.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Good morning, Noel.

KING: What do you think about Naomi Osaka's reasoning here?

BRENNAN: I'm glad that she clarified it on Instagram and Twitter on Monday from Paris, Noel, because it was confusing. There were a lot of people wondering exactly what was going on with this particular focus on the press conference. Now, there's a much larger view, and we see an athlete who was being honest about her struggles. She said she has suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, which she won. That was the first of her four Grand Slam titles.

She's only 23 years old, and she said she's had a hard time coping with all of this. She's an introvert. She said, anyone who has seen me at a tournament will notice that I'm often wearing headphones, as that helps dull my social anxiety. She said she's not a natural public speaker and gets huge waves of anxiety before she speaks to the press.

So I think she offered clarity, and I think the world's reaction is one of sympathy and support and help. It was a very important day for Naomi Osaka and for tennis when she told that story yesterday.

KING: Christine, why is talking to the press a part of these tennis players' contracts?

BRENNAN: It's how they promote the game. It goes all the way back to Billie Jean King and all the other women who were pioneers, trailblazers, trying to get women's tennis on the map. And we see it throughout women's sports that it's about talking and telling your story and saying what happened in the game or the match. Fans care about that. Readers, listeners care very much to hear about what happened after they watched a match or a game.

But it's also about promoting the sport. And that is so essential for any sport, especially in this very crowded sports landscape. And I think that's why this became such a big deal, especially for women promoting their game.

KING: OK, so it sounds like that probably won't change. They won't remove that clause from the contracts. But I wonder, when a top athlete like Naomi Osaka does something like this, do you think it opens the door more broadly to talk about the mental health of these top athletes who we feel like we know?

BRENNAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I think that's why this is such an important moment in sports and in our culture. You know, sport often takes us to these important national and international conversations that we otherwise as a society would not engage in. And because of that, we have these conversations. And I think Naomi Osaka now at 23 is going to lead us there in a very important way to help herself and hopefully help others.

KING: And just quickly, what's been the response from other players?

BRENNAN: Oh, it's been an outpouring from Billie Jean King supporting her and Martina Navratilova saying something important. As athletes, we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift. And she's cheering on Naomi Osaka. That's Martina Navratilova.

KING: Christine Brennan of USA Today. Thanks, Christine.

BRENNAN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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