When tennis player Naomi Osaka announced she wouldn’t be attending post-match press conferences during the 2021 French Open, her declaration hit like a lightning ace serve. She made the decision to protect her mental health as her anxiety, introverted nature, and savage press inquiries, particularly after a poor performance, made for a destructive combo.

In the traditionally staid world of tennis where Victorian-era rules about choice and colour of clothes are still upheld, this confession of self-care was a grenade lobbed to center court and no one was left untouched from the impact.

Naomi was slapped with a fine of US$15,000. Sports journalists criticised her for neglecting her responsibility as an athlete while athletes lauded her honesty and vulnerability. Words were spilled on how mental health matters; if mental health was the new ‘get out of jail’ card; and the innate weakness of the strawberry generation. 

Naomi later issued a clarification about her intention and pulled out of the French Open to avoid being a distraction. Important to note that there was no apology note. Because she never needed to apologise for anything.

Naomi Osaka smashed barriers for mental health awareness

Awareness about self-care and maintaining good mental health has been percolating in the past year but what Naomi did propelled conversations about it to a whole new level. 

It’s a strange but terrible human fallacy to dehumanise those in the limelight and expect them to be objects of entertainment. Critics pointed to Naomi’s multiple ambassadorship as proof that she was lying about her depression. Was she really suffering, if she could shoot an advertisement for Tag Heuer, they asked.

 

 

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Worst of all, they compared her to American tennis player, Serena Williams. This is despite the fact that Serena publicly empathised and stood in solidarity with Naomi – “I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. I’ve been in those positions.” The legendary tennis icon may have survived a career of cruel bias, prejudice and undermining of her femininity seemingly without a complaint. But that doesn’t make it okay.

However women show emotion, we’re screwed, as captured in this very accurately titled article by Bustle. A report by researchers in Humboldt University in Berlin state that people perceive women who show too much anger as less trustworthy. Women who restrain their emotions are perceived by others as less intelligent. In both cases, men come out appearing more competent. 

 

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It’s 2021 and the patriarchal world we live in still pits women against each other and holds them to near impossible standards. As the four-time Grand Slam singles champion illustrates in her “It’s O.K. Not to be O.K” self-penned essay, it’s time for a major update. To tennis tradition, to preconceived notions about those in the public eye, and to normalise exercising self-care. It’s also a good point to note that social anxiety has worsened due to the pandemic.

Her actions may have sparked off a more inclusive and thoughtful sporting arena.

A New Type of Guts and Glory at The Games

At the world’s biggest sporting event in 2021, all eyes were on Simone Biles, the American gymnast who smashed records in the previous Olympics. However, she ended up withdrawing from five out of the six finals she had qualified for due to the ‘twisties’.

A well-known and dangerous internal feeling, this mental block causes gymnasts to lose their spatial awareness midair. Simone’s decision to prioritise her mental health could not have been an easy one to make. This is especially when she is possibly on the last legs of her career and was primed to set a new Olympic record for most medals won by an American gymnast. But it redefines the meaning of winning in sports.

 

Image: Simone Biles from Medium.com

 

Unlike the buzz that Naomi’s announcement created a few months earlier, the public worldwide accepted and respected Simone’s decision. Perhaps the world is slowly learning and accepting that it’s definitely okay not to be okay.

Simone might not have walked away with a gold at the Olympics, but her legacy, much like Naomi Osaka, is all the more iconic due to them putting themselves first. Rather than give themselves away for the win, they spoke up and set their own terms of success. 

May these two incredibly talented and undeniably tough queens be a reminder that regardless what people may say, there’s no one more deserving of care than your very self.