Less than a year ago, Naomi Osaka’s extraordinary transformation was the talk of the tennis world.
From the self-described “most awkward” player on tour who was too shy to muster more than one-word answers when she met rapper Jay-Z on holiday in 2019, the Japanese star was suddenly the face of the sport and one of the most marketable athletes on the planet.
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Lucrative endorsement deals with the likes of Nike and Nissan, among a host of others, saw her crowned the world’s highest-paid sportswoman in 2020 and she was well and truly coming out of her shell.
Osaka’s stand was interpreted by many as a way to avoid questions about her record on clay — her least preferred surface — as she sought to steer clear of, as she said in her original statement, “people who doubt me”.
With four Grand Slam titles to her name, you’d assume Osaka has less to worry about than most. But clearly, she was hiding an inner anguish when she touched down in Paris.
There’s been talk among tennis experts her whirlwind rise to levels of fame on and off the court few athletes will ever experience, finally caught up to her.
Maybe Osaka hadn’t fully come to grips with becoming an international brand and her transformation from a shy starlet wasn’t as complete as the world was led to believe.
“I wonder if you knew she might not be … suited to all the fame and fortune and noise,” former professional tennis player turned American sportscaster Mary Carillo said on the No Challenges Remaining podcast.
“So many contracts that she’s got now. Her life has become very crowded … she handled it with such grace but I think right now maybe she feels like she belongs to too many people.”
Tennis journalist Ben Rothenberg has followed Osaka’s career closely from the very beginning when she emerged on the scene as a teenager, and subscribes to the theory all the attention Osaka has attracted may have become overwhelming, and is what finally pushed her to quit Roland Garros and take some time off.
“It’s been a whole lot really, really fast in terms of fame, pressure, notoriety, symbolic power, money and the obligations and pressures that come with that, and corporate and commercial deals and things like that. It’s been a lot,” Rothenberg told No Challenges Remaining.
“When she first came on tour … she called herself a ‘child of the internet’ and talked about how she spent a lot of time alone being involved in internet culture and memes and jokes and stuff like that. She’d make a lot of jokes about her … social anxiety or her awkwardness around people.”
Going back over old tweets reveals how Osaka would joke about “looking at her phone to get out of awkward situations” as she adjusted to life in the spotlight. Maybe that spotlight finally became too bright for someone who, after winning this year’s Australian Open, wanted to celebrate simply by going back to her hotel room and watching anime.
“I feel with Naomi there was this narrative, or people glossed over her transformation from being this awkward duckling into a swan, or someone that completely (changed) into some big superhero,” Rothenberg said.
“But maybe that was less completely transformative than it was packaged as. Maybe she feels a lot of social anxiety and is put in a lot more high pressure situations there.
“When you think about it, she is who she told us she was from the beginning, and maybe she … has wrestled with that recently.
“Hearing Naomi Osaka talk about social anxiety rings very true to the Naomi Osaka I first met, that’s for sure.”
The sentiment around Osaka shifted rapidly in the early days of the French Open. Initially, top players like Ash Barty, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Daniil Medvedev and Iga Swiatek distanced themselves from her media boycott, all of them agreeing speaking to the press was part of the job that comes with playing professional tennis.
But when the 23-year-old went public about her battle with depression and withdrew from the Grand Slam, the tune started to change. Tennis chiefs were blasted for hounding her out of the sport with callous threats of disqualification instead of doing more to check on her wellbeing, while stars like Serena Williams, Sloane Stephens and Coco Gauff, as well as athletes from other codes like Kyrie Irving, Lewis Hamilton and Usain Bolt were among many who wrapped their arms around the four-time major champion.
The Grand Slams walked back from what respected tennis reporter Jon Wertheim described as a “menacing and humiliating” threat to ban Osaka after she’d withdrawn, releasing a new statement wishing her well and reaffirming their commitment to looking after athletes’ wellbeing.
Should she have played in the first place?
Osaka ran into trouble by equating dealing with the media as having a negative impact on mental health. The question has since been raised: If you’re not well enough to answer questions from reporters, are you well enough to be playing in a Grand Slam at all?
Rothenberg doesn’t think so.
“I find it hard to believe if she was feeling in such rough shape mentally, in terms of the talking side, that she was really ready to play the tournament herself,” he told No Challenges Remaining.
“I mean, I don’t know, it’s a lot to step on the court with a 14, 15 match Grand Slam winning streak if you’re not feeling it. That just struck me as putting yourself right into the fire.
“If you’re in this position where you’re taking losses so badly that a couple of questions about having lost are really going to set you off in some harmful way, then why are you taking the court at a Grand Slam and putting yourself on the line in that sort of arena, in that battlefield, if you really are feeling that vulnerable or that fragile or that unwell?”
One of the more poignant insights into Osaka’s state of mind came from sister Mari in her since-deleted Reddit post, in which she revealed a family member’s quip about the world No. 2’s results on clay severely dented her confidence.
Osaka knew the press would ask about that part of her game, but to hear it from her inner sanctum hit too close to the bone.
Carillo said: “I’m surprised that could wound her so much … that she could be that fragile, somebody who we have seen her play so well under incredible pressure.