Naomi Osaka thinks long and hard about everything. She is measured and honest. She is considerate of the world, and tennis’ place in it. Moreover, she appreciates the position tennis has in her world.
“Tennis is not necessary for anything. I’m doing it, and I love doing it, but there’s more important things in the world,” she told her eponymous Netflix documentary in 2021. “I think about what would happen if the world stopped, what would happen if tennis stopped.”
The news that she has withdrawn from next week’s Australian Open comes as little surprise to anyone who has followed her story. As somebody who has never been afraid to question matters big and small, Osaka has refused to go along with tournament participations or media commitments just because it is expected of her.
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She was extremely frank when defeated by Coco Gauff in the third round of the Australian Open in 2020 just 12 months on from winning the event. “I don’t really have that champion mentality yet, which is someone who can deal with not playing 100% and I’ve always wanted to be like that but I guess I still have a long way to go.”
Little more than a year later she was fined for not attending a mandatory press conference at the French Open, then pulled out of the tournament altogether citing mental health needs. Having also skipped Wimbledon, she took another break after her third-round loss in the US Open to Leylah Fernandez.
At the time of her withdrawal from Roland Garros, Osaka was being praised for raising issues related to the expectations on players, but with each subsequent episode it felt like the sympathy towards her was waning in some quarters.
That constant struggle to find the so-called ‘champion mentality’ has brought us to a point where Osaka doesn’t feel equipped to participate in Melbourne. Some observers have taken to social media to question her decision to spend time in Europe with her boyfriend, but it appears that getting away from things is exactly what Osaka could do with right now. At 25, she is a very philosophical, contemplative soul who wants to understand herself more than she wants to throw herself headlong into potentially damaging mental situations.
“When I get into really big tournaments my sleep is all messed up,” she said in her Netflix documentary. “I really need to mentally take a break and just chill out… The off-season was good because it did give me a lot of time to reflect. It just made me think about the importance of everything.”
Just as two-time Grand Slam champion Ash Barty decided that her life was more than just about tennis and retired at the age of 25 last year, Osaka could well come to the conclusion that she is better off without the sport.
But tennis could do with more Naomi Osakas; players who thrill on the court and are activists and thinkers off it. Players who have the strength to talk about their perceived weaknesses. What tennis – and sport in general – needs less of is so-called fans who sit and pass judgement on a 25-year-old woman trying to make her way in the world in the best way she knows how.