Tennis star Naomi Osaka has been named the Best Female Athlete at the 2021 ESPY Awards. She was bestowed with the award for a special reason. She had been proactive in support of the Black Lives Matters movement last year as she sported unique black masks during the US Open. Earlier this year, she pulled out of the French Open and the Wimbledon citing mental health issues.
It was not some extraordinary on-the-court heroics that got her the medal but it was her courage to stand up for herself and others that led the jury to bestow the title on her. Osaka, who previously shared that she’s suffered from depression since 2018, has largely stayed out of the public eye in efforts to focus on her mental health.
“I just really want to not say a long speech because I’m a bit nervous … I know this year has been really, it hasn’t even finished, but it’s been really tough for a lot of us. For me, I just want to say, I really love you guys and this is my first ESPYs so it’s really cool to be surrounded by all these incredible athletes. I think all of you guys are really cool and I watch some of you on TV so it’s really surreal to be here and yeah, thank you so much and I really appreciate it,” said Osaka
“The press and the tournament did not believe me,” Naomi Osaka
Shortly before the start of the French Open, Naomi Osaka announced that she will not conduct her mandatory media assignments. After Osaka won her first match in straight sets and did not hold a press conference, she was fined $15,000 and threatened with rising levels of fines and expulsion. The Japanese star opened up about the pressure she felt to cite mental health as the reason behind her decision.
“In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual. You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy,” Osaka wrote in her essay for TIME.
“In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me. I do not wish that on anyone and hope that we can enact measures to protect athletes, especially the fragile ones.“
Osaka adds that it is difficult for her to be the face of athletes’ mental health as the issue is still new to her. The 23-year-old hopes that people’s mindset about the issue will change and they will come forward to help those in trouble.
The No. 2 ranked tennis player continued, “I feel uncomfortable being the spokesperson or face of athlete mental health as it’s still so new to me and I don’t have all the answers. I do hope that people can relate and understand it’s okay to not be okay, and it’s okay to talk about it. There are people who can help, and there is usually light at the end of any tunnel.“
Osaka, who has been out of action since May, will return to the court at the Tokyo Olympics. She will be turning up in her homeland but to her dismay, there would be no home crowd to cheer her on her Olympics debut. The government has issued a state of emergency in Tokyo which will be in place throughout the Summer Games.
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