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Naomi Osaka’s mental health controversy echoes at French Open

PARIS >> Naomi Osaka’s 2022 French Open has ended after a first-round loss. Players who stay in the tournament see and hear the products of his frank discussion about anxiety and depression a year ago, from the new “silent rooms” at Roland Garros and the three on-duty psychiatrists to a broader understanding that mental health is far less common. It’s a more taboo subject than it once was.

“After I came back from France last year, I remember photographers following me, even in random places like grocery stores. Osaka, in a recent email to The Associated Press, was really weird and a bit odd until one day a woman came up to me and talked to me about helping her son. “In that moment, everything felt valuable.”

In conversations with the AP shortly before or during the French Open, which began on Sunday, several professional tennis players helped bring Osaka out of the shadows for their sport and align with the voices of other athletes, such as the Olympic champion gymnast. Simone Biles helps create greater awareness and anxiety.

“I definitely think it’s something that gets a lot more attention than it actually is, at least when I hit puberty. I don’t even think I knew what happened back then. Jessica Pegula, 28, said: “If you’re struggling with something, it doesn’t matter if it’s on or off the pitch, we see people talking loudly and normalizing it a bit. The New York-year-old who is in the second round of the French Open today.

“The life we ​​live in tennis is not that normal,” he said. “It can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits.”

Taylor Fritz, the highest-ranking American man at number 14, agreed.

“Traveling every week. Never to be home. The pressure of the rankings,” he said. “Everyone is different, so I feel like I’m a laid-back, relaxed person, and a lot of things don’t really bother me, but I definitely understand that this is an extremely mentally exhausting sport.”

Osaka wasn’t the first to suggest this.

But his position as a four-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 player, and his decision to withdraw from Roland Garros last season to explain why and take two mental health breaks, had widespread repercussions.

“Whenever an athlete shares his vulnerability and authenticity, it will impress other athletes in that sport. “There is a resemblance,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA vice president of mental health and wellness. causes other people to sit down and notice and say, ‘Well, maybe I should watch something along that line.

Paola Badosa, 24, from Spain who won today, didn’t hesitate to talk about her own anxiety.

Like others, he appreciated Osaka’s candor.

“We’re all human. We all have to deal with these mental struggles. We struggle,” Badosa said. “And it’s important that players like him talk about it.”

A more recent example: Bianca Andreescu, the 2019 US Open champion, who will face Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic in Paris on Wednesday, 21, has announced she will be sitting down at the start of this season, including the Australian Open in December. so that it can “rebuild, recover and grow” after two difficult years.

“Definitely more players are talking about it or about it. Some even take the time to regroup and get away from the noise. Another Canadian player, 23, Denis Shapovalov, with Wimbledon, especially when you’re in the spotlight or winning big tournaments and there’s a lot of pressure to support it. “There’s definitely a lot of noise when it happens,” he said. Last year’s semi-finalist said, “It’s not an easy time with social media anymore. And one key is that you need to know whose voice is important and whose voice you don’t need to focus on.”

Before Roland Garros last year, Osaka told the media that he had no intention of speaking. After his first-round victory, he was fined $15,000 for skipping a mandatory press conference (a requirement that hasn’t changed at the French Open or other major championships), and was threatened with further penalties if he did it again by four Grand Slam tournaments.

Instead, Osaka withdrew from the event, revealing what he’s been through over the years and choosing to devote time to tennis.

“I think everybody was surprised and not ready for it,” said Kildine Chevalier, who was hired in October as the player’s services and relations manager for the French tennis federation.

“It’s important that we now consider these issues,” said Chevalier, a former professional player who has not worked in mental health before. here.”

According to Chevalier, new amenities for players at this French Open include an 850-square-foot room in the main stadium with 11 beds and noise-reducing headphones, a yoga room with daily workshops on meditation and breathing, a tea room, a nail salon. salon and telephone helplines to reach psychologists or psychiatrists.

This is separate from what the men’s and women’s tours offer, such as a member of the WTA mental health and wellness team based at Roland Garros. Noting that the office is close to him, Chevalier said, “That’s why I see players coming in all day. … He works hard.”

These meetings have been available on the women’s tour for years, but Ahlgren Bedics estimates a 30% increase in WTA player sessions in the first months of 2022 compared to the first quarter of 2021.

“This is a pretty significant leap,” he said. “If an athlete comes in for 10 minutes and says, ‘I’m really fed up with the way training is going today and I just need to get some air,’ it could be a 10-minute thing. Or the same symptoms could be 90 minutes. What they really want to share and what kinds of things they want to achieve during their time with us. It’s up to the athlete.”

Rebecca Marino, a former top 40 player from Canada, left the tour for nearly five years due to depression but is now back and winning her first French Open berth since 2011 by passing the qualifying rounds. She sees a difference in the way mental health is discussed these days—in tennis, yes, but also in society at large—and the WTA received “a lot of praise” for the way she’s approached the issue, she said.

“People didn’t really understand what I was going through with my mental health and why I was walking away from sports,” Marino said. We now have many more athletes debating the importance of mental health in their careers. It really opened up the conversation to a lot more people and created a more positive conversation, I think that’s really cool and I’m glad it’s starting to happen.”

Still, Frances Tiafoe, a 24-year-old from Maryland and a close friend from Osaka, noted that there is work to be done to make people understand that they need to talk about mental health issues.

“Sometimes you don’t want to be vulnerable to each other,” he said after winning a French Open game for the first time today. “If you complain, then you are referred to as ‘soft’. But when you think about it, you are actually strong. Sometimes people really go through a lot inside, but they hide it and try to make a facade like it’s super tough. Sometimes you just have to verbalize it. You need a safe space to be heard. Something was going on with Naomi at that moment.”

Osaka, 23, who was born in Japan and now lives in the United States, has remained part of the public conversation, simply by letting people know that she has spoken to a therapist or as an investor. Role of lead public health advocate for Modern Health, which calls itself “a global workplace mental health and wellness platform.”

He records the meditations the company makes public, and CEO and founder Alyson Watson said Osaka “could play a huge role in tainting mental health” and “really open the way, not just for athletes, but for other people as well.” Talk about the struggle too.”

In an email to the AP, Osaka wrote that he has remained silent about growing emotions and going beyond that, adding, regarding the 2021 French Open: “This year, I’m definitely in a different situation.”

Tonight, the day after leaving the tournament, Osaka tweeted: “The past few weeks in Europe have been a real test of character, but I’m glad I came. … I leave with a completely different feeling than before.”

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