The “mental” disintegration,” that Steve Waugh, then Australian cricket captain, spoke of was more a threat to his opponents. Naomi Osaka’s stress-related depression, much-talked about after withdrawing from the French Open, is more troubling, not just for her, the world’s most-sought after woman tennis player, already four-times Grand Slam champion, but also, world tennis and like it or not, Madison Avenue.
The Osaka exit wasn’t a one-off tremor on world tennis’ Richter. This isn’t John McEnroe at the 1990 Australian Open or more recently, Nick Kyrgios’ radioactivity: distasteful, but settled after disqualification and a fine. This isn’t even the end; it’s perhaps an agonizing beginning as Wimbledon’s just a month away. If Osaka’s still at “my mental health over media meets,” how considerate will the All England Club be? Initially, the English, like Queen Victoria, weren’t amused (the other Grand Slam authorities were just as unyielding), but backtracked, acknowledging how “challenging” mental health was and promising “utmost attention.” What that really means, beyond the bureaucratese (a media blackout, a watered-down version or an entirely original solution?) we’ll know in a month.
Osaka’s career, and she could be the next Helen Willis Moody, Martina Navratilova or Steffi Graf, has only just begun. She’s the Great Not Quite White Hope of world tennis. She sells tickets, she sells Nike sneakers ($10 million annually as sponsorship fees isn’t loose change even for a firm that just does it), she’s on the cover of Vogue, she’s one of the richest female athletes of all time, much of the money coming from endorsers (apart from Nike, an airline, a credit card company and just about every other biggie) with serious heft. Maria Sharapova, understandably enough, was, till recently, the sponsors’ ‘It Girl.’ Osaka’s the uber-Sharapova now, with her “cross-over appeal,” little girls from Tokyo (Osaka, of course) to Cape Town dreaming of being the next Naomi Osaka. So, another Grand Slam tournament without Osaka? A year without her? God forbid!
Then, there’s the multiplier effect. What if Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest tennis players in history, throws in the towel tomorrow at Roland Garros, even if mental health’s not his issue? Facebook or Twitter won’t mind a world without post-match press briefings. If Nadal or his eternal rival, the almost saintly Roger Federer, want to reach their million-plus followers, there’s always social media.
Which is a worry: by being considerate to the super-stars (and mental health may not be an issue next time) and bowing to the fat-cats, you’re squeezing out the media. If that does happen, and let’s hope it doesn’t, you can imagine the stink…
Till the other day, it was always about torn muscles; mental health’s was almost as misunderstood as it was when General George Patton slapped shell-shocked American soldiers in Sicily during World War II. He’d even kicked a GI in hospital, calling him a “gutless bastard.” Now, coinciding with the Osaka exit kerfuffle, comes the International Olympic Committee’s Mental Health in Elite Athlete’s Toolkit, dealing with anxiety, depression, insomnia, alcohol misuse and eating disorders. As Abhinav Bindra, Olympic gold medalist and member of the IOC mental health working group, the tool-kit, not just for the athlete, but the coach, manager and family member, says “mental health and physical health are two halves of a whole.”
Osaka’s condition isn’t unique. Think of Marcus Trescothick, the English cricketer, flying back from India in the middle of the test series in 2006, too troubled to play. Or Jonathan Trott, another English cricketer and fear of putting on a tracksuit, sitting away from his teammates at breakfast, cap over his eyes; he couldn’t tell anyone he’d been crying. Or even Kim Hughes, the Australian cricket captain, bursting into tears before the media, too overwrought to even say he’d resigned, that he couldn’t take it any more. For Australian cricket, in 1984, it was just an embarrassment; Hughes, rough-and-type Aussies felt, was a cry-baby, a wimp. More recently, there’s Andrew Flintoff of England and Glenn Maxwell, the Australian, both supremely talented cricketers, and yet, so deer caught in the headlights. Who would have thought that Michael Phelps, an all-time great, would contemplate suicide after 28 Olympic medals in swimming? In Delhi in March, tennis great Andre Agassi spoke of the moment he became world No.1, something he’d always dreamt of being, something he worked towards for decades. And it seemed so meaningless…
Only Osaka, usually good with the press, knows why she felt a post-match media gig, part of the playing conditions, was much like being thrown, as was Daniel, to the lions. Yes, Osaka, a young, half-Haitian-American, half-Japanese woman in a world of predominantly White male officials, could have spoken with the French Open authorities before her message on social media. Or even dropped out if she felt a news conference, where reporters can be unsympathetic, but is perhaps, the only place where a tough question can be asked, was too distressing for her. As Serena Williams, who’s struggled with depression for a decade and is attempting a 24th Grand Slam said, it’s important to have a “sounding board,” in the tennis establishment or among family and friends. Other legends have been supportive, but realising how disruptive all this could be, haven’t applauded her for pulling out.
As for Osaka, let’s not forget something. She’s only 23.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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