Naomi Osaka shocked the world yesterday by announcing that she would withdraw from the French Open, one day after leaders of the four major tennis tournaments threatened her with harsh penalties should she continue her refusal to attend mandatory news conferences.
"I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris," wrote Osaka on Instagram. Osaka went on to describe her battle with bouts of depression and anxiety, and her need to focus on self-care.
You can read Osaka's full message here on Instagram, and I highly recommend you do so. It's humble and graceful, and yet smart and strong--all the things we've come to expect from this 23-year-old who has already proven wise beyond her years.
Most important, it's a powerful lesson in emotional intelligence, one that may even have saved her life. But to fully appreciate why, we have to examine the events of the past few days.
Osaka first announced on social media last week that she would be avoiding the press while participating in the French Open.
Osaka expressed concern that the nature of media interviews, especially after a loss, showed no regard for the mental health of athletes. "I believe that the whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it."
Many, including Osaka's fellow tennis colleagues, found the young star's comments unreasonable. Some called her spoiled, entitled. Most criticized her position, pointing out that doing press is part of the job they signed up for, and is part of the obligations set out in her contract.
"Following the lack of engagement by Naomi Osaka, the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes' well-being and suggest dialog on the issues," wrote the leaders of the four tournaments in a joint statement.
Sounds reasonable--at first.
But the statement continues:
"We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences. As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.)."
Yikes. Not exactly the language you'd expect of those who claim to "offer support" and "underline their commitment to all athletes' well being."
So, let's reiterate: What we have here is a 23-year-old who expressed concerns about her mental health, admittedly through a "message that could have been clearer" and with timing that was "not ideal" (Osaka's words).
That was met with criticism from her peers and threats from the governing bodies of her sport to exclude her from the four major tennis tournaments, as well as possible future suspensions.
But here is where Osaka's emotional intelligence shines.
At this point, Osaka could have let the criticism get to her. She could have decided to "suck it up." She could have thought:
Well, maybe all of these people are right.
Maybe I'm too soft.
Maybe I should just force myself to participate.
Maybe I should suffer through the mental and emotional anguish.
But if Osaka had done those things, what do you think it would have cost her?
Or, Osaka could have retaliated. She could have complained. She could have played the victim, drawing further attention to herself and her plight.
But that wouldn't have made her situation better, either.
So instead, Osaka did the emotionally intelligent thing.
She apologized to those whom she hurt (albeit unintentionally).
She focused on solutions, stating her plan to, when the time is right, work together with officials to "make things better for the players, press and fans."
And most importantly:
She removed herself from an extremely dangerous situation, as quickly as possible.
When the leaders of tennis threatened Osaka, few imagined that she would actually withdraw from the tournament.
But that goes to show how few people really know Naomi Osaka.
Because the young, strong woman who climbed to the top of the tennis world is also the young, strong woman who knew when to walk away.
It's a decision that just may have saved her life.