Twenty-three-year-old Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open due to mental health issues compounded by tournament requirements that players render themselves accessible to the media and grant post-play interviews. What does it say that the No. 2 women's tennis player and world's highest paid female athlete chooses to opt out rather than endure the stress and mental fatigue that is contractually required?
Osaka is a sympathetic figure in this unfolding drama as she has forsaken huge money and potentially imperiled a career by its nature predestined for brevity. She is struggling with demands on her extremely introverted personality that has exacerbated the depression she's been battling for three years. When obligations to others conflict with obligations to self, especially in full view of the world, one does not come away unscathed.
The WTA has since doubled down on its position that players must attend press events and sit for interviews. "Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition." Promotion of the sport translates to money, and this outweighs any pretense of concern for the wellbeing of the athletes. It all seems rather tawdry, akin to athlete "trafficking."
Many shrug it off as part of the package, with a "suck it up and deposit your check" attitude, but the Washington Post's Christine Emba offers: "Athletes are human, too; it may be their job to play, but they do not exist solely for our entertainment. By sitting the French Open out and reminding us of that truth, Osaka is doing not just herself but also 'the sport' a favor."
Osaka's reluctant celebrity has provided her a platform to appeal for change, and this warrants attention and exploration. She follows in the footsteps of Megan Rapinoe and Colin Kaepernick. Unfortunately, Osaka misfired when she initially aired her grievances on social media but has since rectified this with an Instagram post that is transparent and genuine and painfully honest, and raises legitimate issues.
Tennis has factored prominently in my life. My father was a dynamo on and off the court, finagling a premier center court box for the U.S. Open when the USTA National Tennis Center was erected in Flushing Meadows, Queens, in 1978. We for years sat near enough to the champions to see the sweat droplets on their faces as they retired to their seats during the 90-second game changeovers.
Prior to 1978, my dad held a box for the Open at the West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills. I was witness to the evolution of the sport on its various surfaces and the stylistic changes each generated. We watched the tournament first on unpredictable grass and then on clay. Clay delivered a game of finesse featuring the crescendo of long points that garnered wild applause for both players and a sense of regret that either player would have to lose. The hard surface at Flushing Meadows heralded the era of the power game — fast, furious and exciting.
As far as I knew, players in those days were revered, and it was really only the "bad boys" who were heckled by fans and needled by the press. Today, when publicity seems to be weighted nearly as heavily as skill, the tenor of the game is quite changed. In addition, the advent of social media ramped up external pressures, subjecting players to merciless critiquing and even threats.
The heyday of tennis in the Mount Washington Valley was the nine years it hosted the Volvo International tournament at Cranmore, bringing tennis luminaries of the 1970s and '80s to North Conway. Volvo's valley swansong was in 1984, the summer I first ventured to the area. Who could have predicted that in its wake would be the long, slow demise of local tennis?
It used to be that at the close of ski season, Stan and Dan transformed itself into the valley's tennis store. Cranmore's outdoor stadium featured three clay courts, and the Cranmore Fitness housed seven indoor courts. In 2010, what remained of the stadium gave way to a tubing park and condos. The indoor courts were depleted over time, and in 2019, the fitness club was shuttered.
Last week, as Naomi Osaka was dropping out of the French Open, the building that housed the remaining two courts was razed, leaving uncertainty about the direction of the sport on all levels.
Jonna Carter lives in South Conway with her husband and five crazy rescue dogs.