IT came as no surprise that Serena Williams, 23-grand slam singles winner and undoubtedly one of the best female tennis players to ever grace the sport, threw her full weight behind 23-year-old Japanese ace Naomi Osaka, following the latter’s fallout with authorities after pulling out of the French Open, citing depression.
A fortnight ago, global media went wild following Osaka’s pullout from the French Open and refusal to host mandatory press conferences that she said put undue pressure on players.
That decision left her US$15 000 poorer after being fined for her actions.
Osaka, the world number two female tennis player and highest paid female athlete, pulled out after French Open authorities threatened her with dismissal from the Paris tourney.
This was despite the tennis ace having cited battling depression and mental trauma, a scourge that has increasingly plagued society at a time that the world is reeling from a ravaging COVID-19 pandemic, with celebrity athletes fighting battles that can be taxing to one’s mental state.
“Hey everyone, this isn’t a situation I ever imagined or intended when I posted a few days ago,” posted Osaka on her twitter handle.
“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.
I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.
More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.
The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.
Anyone that knows me knows I am introverted, and anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.
Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologise to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.
I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.
So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.
I announced it preemptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
I wrote privately to the tournament apologising and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense.
I’m gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.
Anyways hope you are all doing well and staying safe, love you guys.
I’ll see you when I see you.”
Following this incident, Williams, responding to questions from the media, offered kind words to Osaka as she has been in the same shoes.
Wrote Williams: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi.
I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like …I’ve been in these positions.
We have different personalities, and people are different.
Not everyone is the same. I’m thick. Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.
You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that’ the only thing I can say.
I think she’s doing the best she can.”
While many athletes from across the sporting fraternity expressed sympathy with Osaka, it was Williams’ post that stood out for it’s sincerity, since the two share something in common, their black ancestry.
Both are blacks who have penetrated and dominated a sport that used to be the preserve of the whites.
However, that comes at a cost.
The unrelenting paparazzi has played a significant role in amplifying things in an unfair way, bordering on racial discrimination.
At one time, the media even tried to drive a wedge between the two in 2018 when the Herald Sun published an overtly racist cartoon caricaturing Williams as a sore loser after being subdued by Osaka during the US Open.
Serena was depicted as having inflated lips, coloured red, covering half her face, eerily echoing the blackface racist depictions of people of colour, while at the same time caricaturing Osaka as a slim, cultured blonde.
This was despite the fact that Osaka is of mixed blood; her father being Haitian, while her mother is Japanese.
Haiti is a former French colony populated by slaves carted from Africa at the height of the slave trade.
Williams, on the other hand, strongly identifies with her African roots.
And it’s no secret that black women in the US have always been in the lower echelons of American society, are often subjected to racism, oppression and subjugation, regardless of social class.
No wonder Osaka is vociferous about the Black Lives Matter Movement because, after all is said and done, black lives matter and the sporting fraternity the world over should just acknowledge the contribution of black athletes without throwing spanners in the works.