Osaka

Empathy is the toughest emotion, isn’t it? Yes, it’s fairly easy to empathize with people we naturally connect with. Show me a reasonably optimistic 50-something bald guy with a wife, two daughters, and a love of baseball, and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll be able to relate to his problems, his joys, his fears, and all the rest.

But now, show me a 23-year-old tennis genius who makes $50 million a year and has become one of sports’ leading activists for social justice and … maybe it’s hard for any of us to share exactly what she is feeling.

This the only explanation I have for why the Naomi Osaka story went off the rails first. I’m hopeful that maybe the tide has turned on that, hopeful that maybe now more people can see her. But first, there was the backlash. We live in a time when the backlash almost always comes first.

The whole thing began a week ago Monday when four-time major champion Naomi Osaka announced that she would not appear at any press conferences during the French Open, which is going on now in Paris. Osaka has since admitted that the statement was not worded particularly well:

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. … If the organizations think they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re going to be fined,’ and continue to ignore the mental health of athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”

This sounded to many like an attack on the French Open and sports journalists rather than what I think it really was … a cry for help. But we will get back to that: The immediate reaction was a furious blast, some people ripping Osaka for being soft and selfishly not supporting her sport and other people ripping tournaments and sports media having inane and unnecessary press conferences in the first place. Why should she answer dumb questions? What gives her the right to walk away from her responsibilities?

Naomi Osaka became a hot take because that seems to be what happens now, and the issue at the heart of things, her mental health, was essentially lost.

Every single person is different, of course, but I vividly remember in 2006 when Zack Greinke decided to walk away from baseball. He was roughly Osaka’s age and, though he wasn’t yet a star big-league pitcher — certainly wasn’t the global sensation that Osaka has become — he’d been surrounded by hype and expectation since he was 18 years old. He’d already developed a reputation for bluntness, quirkiness, flakiness, and it’s clear that nobody really understood what he was going through.

One day during spring training, he walked into an office with general manager Allard Baird and manager Buddy Bell and announced that he needed to leave. He needed to go home. He couldn’t deal with the baseball life.

Baird and Bell didn’t really understand — how could they? The social anxiety Greinke felt was not easily understood or explained. He said it didn’t affect him on the mound; sometimes Greinke thought like the only place in the world he felt OK was when he was on the pitchers’ mound. Social anxiety, social phobia, social withdrawal, depression, these are all different things, and they affect people differently. Baird and Bell are not psychologists; they readily admitted that they found it all confusing.

But they could see that Greinke had reached a breaking point.

He went home to work on himself. In that time, he considered quitting baseball and taking up professional golf. He considered quitting pitching and coming back as an everyday player — maybe, he thought, that would help. He has since admitted that he never expected to return.

He stayed away for months. The Royals, to their everlasting credit, tried only to be patient and supportive. In time, Greinke did return, and the team slowly brought him back, and then they put him in the bullpen so he could see more regular action, and Greinke worked on himself. In 2009, he had one of the greatest pitching seasons of the century. He has since become a Hall of Fame pitcher.

The connection I see here was that Greinke remade his baseball life so that he could thrive as an athlete and as a person. During that extraordinary 2009 season, Sports Illustrated wanted to put him on the cover. He refused to pose for a photograph.* When asked about winning the Cy Young, he said he’d rather not because it’s a big hassle. When asked about throwing a no-hitter, he said he’d rather not because it’s a big hassle. When asked about starting the All-Star game, he said he’d rather not because it’s a big hassle. I think “big hassle” is code. Greinke only does press when absolutely necessary, and he does them reluctantly and perfunctorily. This is how he copes.

*Which actually led, in my view, to one of the great covers in the magazine’s history, a brilliant photograph by the brilliant Robert Beck .. it is a photo from above and behind of Greinke toeing the rubber. You don’t see his face.

And I think this is what Naomi Osaka is trying to do. I think she’s looking for a way to cope with her life. She admits going through significant waves of depression since launching on the world stage as a 20-year-old when she won the U.S. Open. This isn’t easy to see; she is such an extraordinary player, she often flashes an enormous smile, she has been outspoken on issues that matter to her. But like with Greinke, there are signs that you can see in retrospect, such as this quote from her coach Sascha Baijin during her U.S. Open run in 2018:

“I thought she was a little more of a diva because she didn’t talk much. She doesn’t really look at someone’s eyes, but that’s because she was always so shy. She would just keep her head down a little bit, which is cute now. Back then I didn’t know for what reason. I feel bad for prejudging.”

When Osaka announced that she would not do press in Paris for her own mental health, the prejudging began again. Prima donna! The press is the worst! She owes us answers! The questions are worthless! The French Open shamefully threatened suspension. Other Grand Slam tournaments piled on. The very concept of the press conference was debated and mocked and defended and torn apart. That’s, admittedly, an easier and more fun thing to fight about than a heartfelt and difficult discussion about mental health. We all have opinions about the worth or worthlessness of press conferences.

But, that isn’t the story here. The story here is empathy. Maybe it doesn’t come easily or naturally. But Naomi Osaka is in pain. If that didn’t come through in her first statement, she expressed just a small part of it in her second, the one she released after withdrawing from the French Open.

Listen.

“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018, and I have 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. … I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”

And now her announcement about skipping press conferences becomes clearer; she was trying to remake her life so she could cope. Like Greinke. Like countless others. It feels like only now after she left Paris, people begin to understand what’s at the core here. The French Open released a newer and more supportive statement, and the conversation, at last, turns to the obvious but still vitally important point that everyone, including the world’s most successful people, struggles with their mental well-being. It seems to me that as we hopefully come out of a worldwide pandemic, this conversation about mental health is more important than ever.

Yes, of course, there are still people who want to fight other fights, argue other points, yell about player responsibilities, talk about the questions that get asked at press conferences. We can discuss that at another time.

What matters now is that the tennis community does all it can to support Naomi Osaka, the player and the person.