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Naomi Osaka Speaks Out: “Athletes Are Human”

Naomi Osaka is the latest cover star of TIME, and the tennis pro has penned a moving open letter to accompany her cover — one of her first public statements since withdrawing from this year’s French Open due to mental health concerns.

Back in May, Osaka initially announced that she would not be participating in post-match press conferences while competing in Roland-Garros to protect her mental health. The decision sparked a storm of criticism by sports media and resulted in Osaka being fined $15,000 for violating the rules of media obligations set by the Grand Slams. Only a few days later, Osaka withdrew entirely from the tournament, stating that she’d be taking “some time away from the court.”

Since then, Osaka has not spoken much to the press, aside from a recent statement given to Japan’s national broadcaster NHK about her participation in the upcoming Olympics. Last month, Osaka’s agent shared that she had “withdrawn from Wimbledon to spend time with friends and family.”

Now, Osaka is using her voice and speaking up about mental health in a more formal and straightforward way than ever before — but her sincerity is still present.

In her TIME op-ed, Osaka writes that she “should have been prepared for what unfolded” after announcing her decision to withhold from the press at the French Open, referencing the aftermath of overwhelming media scrutiny. She didn’t expect a decision that preserved her sense of self to be so strongly contested. But with a wave of backlash also came a wave of support. Former First Lady Michelle Obama, Meghan Markle, fellow athletes Michael Phelps, Steph Curry, and Novak Djokovic all extended their encouragement of Osaka and her act of self-advocacy.

“It has become apparent to me that literally everyone either suffers from issues related to their mental health or knows someone who does,” Osaka wrote. “The number of messages I received from such a vast cross section of people confirms that.”

Osaka stated that her decision to withhold from press and withdraw from the tournament was never a political or radical move, but rather, a choice that protected her well-being after struggling with anxiety and depression for so long. Her problem was never with the press — but rather the “traditional format of the press conference.”

“The way I see it, the reliance and respect from athlete to press is reciprocal,” Osaka said. “However, in my opinion (and I want to say that this is just my opinion and not that of every tennis player on tour), the press-conference format itself is out of date and in great need of a refresh. I believe that we can make it better, more interesting, and more enjoyable for each side. Less subject vs. object; more peer to peer.”

Osaka emphasized that she stands by her decision to “exercise self-care,” and that her intent was “never to inspire revolt, but rather look critically” at the workplace of professional athletes and question the status quo.

“Athletes are humans. Tennis is our privileged profession, and of course there are commitments off the court that coincide,” she said. “But I can’t imagine another profession where a consistent attendance record (I have missed one press conference in my seven years on tour) would be so harshly scrutinized. Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions.”

The conversation around athletes’ well-being has become more and more prevalent in recent years, as athletes speak more candidly about their experiences with mental health. In the case of Osaka, many are taking a closer look at what it means when the court is your cubicle — how is the sports industry actually protecting their athletes in the workplace?

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