American tennis legend Billie Jean King has heaped praise on Naomi Osaka and the important role the Japanese star is playing in the global conversation around mental health.
Osaka’s mental health battles have been well documented in 2021, with the 23-year-old withdrawing from this year’s French Open after being fined and threatened with expulsion for refusing to do media duties, which she said had contributed to the depression issues she had struggled with for years.
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Osaka – a four-time grand slam champion – also pulled out of Wimbledon, leading to a broader conversation about mental health in sport.
She gets her US Open campaign underway on Tuesday (AEST) against Marie Bouzková on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The World No.3 was joined by King, mercurial Australian Nick Kyrgios and former American player Mardy Fish for a discussion hosted by Racquet Magazine on the eve of the grand slam tournament.
King spoke glowingly about Osaka and insisted that her struggles helped shine a light on a topic that has historically been so difficult for people to speak about openly.
“Everyone loves you guys. They listen to you guys, and I think it’s great when you talk and talk about your feelings. Kids need that,” King, a leading figure in the campaign for gender equality in tennis, told Osaka.
“When I was outed in ’81 for being gay, I lost everything in 24 hours.
“You guys can talk about these things and you’re celebrated. Other people have the same issues. But we couldn’t talk about it the way you get to.
“Every time I go to any place now I have to talk about mental health. Why? Because you guys talked about it. That’s fantastic progress.”
The 77-year-old has in the past likened Osaka’s off-court stance to that of the Original Nine, a group of players led by King who fought tirelessly to start a professional women’s tennis tour, which led to the creation of the WTA in 1973.
Osaka was lauded for supporting the “Black Lives Matter” campaign as she highlighted racial injustice by wearing different face masks at her 2020 US Open matches bearing the names of African Americans who died in recent years.
Naomi Osaka offers honest self-assessment
“After my first slam, I was supposed to be the good girl,” Osaka said.
“But now that I’m talking about stuff that bothers me, I think it’s confusing a lot of people.
“I honestly don’t know what people think about me.”
In a social media post on Sunday, Osaka said she intends to celebrate her own achievements more and will not worry about the expectations others place on her as she prepares to begin her US Open title defence.
Kyrgios, who has been punished by authorities for his on-court behaviour, said he did not feel the media cared about players’ well-being.
But King, who won 12 grand slam singles titles, said the sport’s financial strength would not have been possible without the support of the press.
“In our generation we played for $14 a day and we played for more than ourselves,” she said.
“We only had the traditional media. So if we don’t get them to tell our story then we wouldn’t have what we have today.”
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