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Japan rallies to support Osaka after French Open withdrawal

Japan rallies to support Osaka after French Open withdrawal
June 1, 2021

TOKYO (Reuters) – Japan joined leading figures in tennis in rallying around Naomi Osaka on Tuesday after the world number two withdrew from the French Open in a row about post-match media duties, saying she had been suffering from "depression" and "anxiety".

One of the biggest names in sport, Osaka stunned the tennis world when she pulled out of the Grand Slam on Monday after being fined and threatened with expulsion for declining to face the media after her first-round match on Sunday.

The four-times Grand Slam champion had last week signalled her intentions to skip her media duties to protect her mental well-being and she returned to Twitter on Monday to announce her withdrawal.

While her original stance had earned the Japanese 23-year-old little backing from her fellow professionals, most saying that dealing with the media was part of the job, her withdrawal triggered a wave of support from around the world.

"The first thing to be considered is Ms. Osaka's health. I wish her the earliest possible recovery," Japan Tennis Association (JTA) Executive Director Toshihisa Tsuchihashi said in a statement on Tuesday.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told a news conference that he would "watch over her quietly" and there was concern on the streets of Tokyo for the woman who will be one of the faces of this year's Olympic Games in the city.

"I think she's under a lot of pressure, more than we can imagine," kimono dresser Tomomi Noguchi, 67, told Reuters.

"She got to the top when she was young so I think we can't really imagine what she's going through."

Vickie Skorji, who manages a helpline at TELL, a non-profit counselling service in Japan, said society needed to be "more respectful and supportive" of mental health.

"Who has asked her how she is doing? She put out a statement and said 'I need to take care of myself,' and she's been punished," Skorji told Reuters.

"I think she is courageous and needs support."

'INCREDIBLY BRAVE'

Skorji's thoughts echoed earlier comments from women's tennis trailblazers Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King.

"It's incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression," King wrote on social media.

"Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well."

Earlier, Williams sisters Serena and Venus, as well as younger American players Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens, chimed in with messages of support as the focus shifted from Osaka's responsibilities to her wellbeing.

There were also messages of support posted on social media from athletes in other sports.

"You shouldn't ever have to make a decision like this -- but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don't protect their own. Major respect," wrote NBA All Star Steph Curry.

There was some criticism of Roland Garros organisers for their handling of the matter.

French Tennis Federation President Gilles Moretton read a prepared statement on Monday offering Osaka their support but the irony of him not taking questions afterwards was not lost on some.

"So the FFT handled the Ms Osaka mental health concerns without empathy or sensitivity. Then the FFT President refuses to take questions at a presser. An own goal," wrote former Australian tennis official Richard Ings.

Osaka earned $55.2 million over the past 12 months according to sports business website Sportico, much of it from sponsorship deals with major companies in Japan and the United States.

"Above everything else, we wish for Ms. Naomi Osaka's quickest recovery and hope she will continue to perform well," Japanese sponsor Nissin Foods said in a statement.