IN the summer of 2021, Naomi Osaka logged on to Instagram for an impromptu live broadcast with the simple aim of briefly revealing her new dog, Butta, to her fans. Within seconds, though, the view counter spiked. Tens of thousands of her followers logged on and comments furiously rained down.
As she showed off her dog, Osaka continually noted her surprise at how many people were watching such a mundane task. She logged off shortly after. A fleeting, insignificant moment, but it served to underline what it means to be Naomi Osaka today. The highest-earning women’s athlete in the world. A magnet for masses of attention through the smallest of acts. A person still navigating all of that in real time, making decisions in full view of public scrutiny.
A few months earlier, at last year’s French Open, Osaka provided another. On the eve of the tournament’s media day, Osaka posted a statement on her social media announcing that she would not be conducting press conferences due to their impact on her mental health.
What she had perhaps envisioned as a niche, tennis-specific issue quickly became global news and her cry for help ended with the grand slams releasing a harsh joint statement suggesting that she could face suspension for not conducting media. After her first-round match, Osaka decided to withdraw from the tournament.
One year on from her incident, and after taking a break from professional tennis at the end of the season, Osaka has returned to the French Open and on Thursday she conducted her pre-tournament press conference. She admitted that her return to the French Open was a source of consternation.
“I’m not gonna lie,” she said. “When I first came here, I was very worried. Of course I also didn’t like how I handled the situation, but I was worried that there were people that I offended some way and I would just kind of bump into them. But I think like everyone has been really positive, for the most part.”
Osaka has given numerous interviews since the start of the season, both in victory and defeat, but her worries also spread to the press conference, which was not mandatory. It carried on without incident, with Osaka spoke so openly that during an interaction with Japanese media, she had to pause after nearly revealing her gameplan for her first-round match against Amanda Anisimova. She explained that she used to be more carefree in press conferences, but now she considers each word she says.
“I feel like the thing that’s changed is like me trying to figure out the crowd,” she said. “I feel like I’m a standup comedian and I’m trying to figure out what’s OK and what’s not OK. But, yeah, I think maybe that’s changed for me. Like I’m kind of analysing what I can say and what I can’t say.”
In the wake of last year’s French Open, athletes have spoken more openly about mental health. The biggest story of the Tokyo Olympics last year was Simone Biles’ decision to step away from the women’s team final at the Olympics after suffering from the twisties, and as she explained her reasons, she cited Osaka as an inspiration.
Osaka, meanwhile, has spoken of her determination to find joy in her game and her profession again. After she was heckled at Indian Wells and was unable to compose herself afterwards, she finally put aside her tendency to deal with all of her problems herself. She hired a therapist for the first time in her career, who provided her with breathing techniques and helped her to view things from a different perspective. A month ago, she announced a partnership with Modern Health, a mental wellness platform that is also partnered with the WTA.
“I think for me where I am right now, I wouldn’t want to say it’s like it hasn’t left my mind,” she said. “Of course I’m still thinking about it, and I’m like kind of also prepping just in case like I go on the court and a fan says something like in Indian Wells,” she said. Then she paused. “Yeah, for the most part I think I’m OK.”
Meanwhile, her career continues. Osaka recently announced her separation from IMG, the major management company, in favour of becoming the first female athlete to ever start their own agency, called Evolve. On the court her form has been turbulent, losing her composure after being heckled at Indian Wells in March, then responding by reaching the final at the Miami Open a few weeks later. She had been determined to perform during the clay season, yet it has instead been marred by an achilles injury she is still nursing.
“There is no way I’m not going to play this tournament, so of course you have to manage things, but at the same time, like, I’m going to pop a few painkillers. It is what it is."