OPINION: Imagine the scenario. Your name is Naomi Osaka, you’re a teenager, playing a Grand Slam final against Serena Williams, the home player, a legend and firm crowd favourite.
You win the drama-filled match and, as you hold the trophy, some twenty thousand fans are booing you. You pull your visor down over your face to hide your tears and try to
block out the deafening jeers. And then you have to make a winner’s speech in front of this hostile crowd.
Now you’re no longer just a tennis player. You are a brand, earning millions and swamped by publicity, every move minutely and publicly scrutinised.
But you are also excruciatingly shy and have a tendency towards bouts of depression, something you’ve so far managed to hide from the public because that’s something steeped in shame.
The solitary world of competitive singles is not a comfortable one for those with potential mental health issues.
The endless travelling, faceless hotel rooms, being careful not to get too close to other players as they are, after all, your opponents, and, worst of all, dealing with loss. Tennis players tend to be perfectionists and losses result in self-analysis and self-blame.
On top of that, imagine having to come off court after one of those painful losses, straight into the press room to face those reporters, mostly middle-aged white men (you are young, female and mixed race), shouting questions, asking what happened to you out there, just to rub it in.
Finally, you let the world know that you can no longer cope with those gruelling press conferences and, despite the fines, you are just not going to do them any more – for which you are vilified in the media and threatened with disqualification, not just from the French Open, but also future Grand Slams. Even your peers are weighing in on the matter.
It’s all building towards the real pressure-cooker scenario; the thought of playing in your home Olympics, no overseas spectators permitted due to Covid regulations. You might be dreading the thought of a stadium comprising purely Japanese fans and press, all wanting their pound of flesh. Wouldn’t most people fold in the face of all this?
Of course, if you are a professional athlete you are expected to deal with the press, to make speeches no matter how shy you are, and to look the part off court, to wear those heels when you just want to live in comfortable tracksuits and trainers. After all, if you are going to earn millions that’s part of the deal.
It seems that the tennis authorities have finally woken up to the intense pressure and scrutiny that’s put on players and the resultant debilitating outcomes. Apparently, they now want to help players deal with issues which are so damaging to their mental health. It’s taken a Naomi Osaka to make them wake up.
It’ll be interesting to see whether anything positive comes out of all this. In the meantime, Osaka appears to be the sacrificial lamb.
* Katrina Allen is a former Junior Wimbledon player and former world number one at the original game of Real Tennis.