World number one Novak Djokovic hailed Naomi Osaka as “brave and bold” for withdrawing from the French Open and revealing her struggles with anxiety and depression but admitted he wasn’t surprised she had been threatened with a Grand Slam ban.
“I support her. I think she was very brave to do that. I’m really sorry that she is going through painful times and suffering mentally,” said Djokovic on Tuesday.
“This was, I must say, a very bold decision from her side. If she needs to take time and reflect and just recharge that’s what she needed to do, and I respect it fully. I hope that she’ll come back stronger.”
Osaka, the 23-year-old world number two, and four-time major winner, said she will take a break from tennis, putting her participation at Wimbledon and her home Olympics at risk.
She was fined $15,000 and threatened with disqualification from Roland Garros after she refused to honour mandatory media commitments.
She claims they are detrimental to her mental health and likened the traditional post-match news conference to “kicking people when they’re down”.
Osaka said her mental health struggles began in 2018 when she won the first of her four majors at the US Open in a controversial final against Serena Williams.
“The truth is I have suffered bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
“In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”
Djokovic said he was not surprised that the Grand Slams had threatened to extend sanctions against Osaka even for future majors.
“The Grand Slams are protecting themselves and their own business,” said Djokovic.
“Of course they are going to follow the rules and they are going to make sure that you are complying. Otherwise you’ll be paying fines and getting sanctioned. It’s not surprising to me that that was their reaction.”
Djokovic also hinted at the generational shift in the sport where traditional mainstream media is often eclipsed by an athlete’s own social media platforms.
Osaka has 2.3 million followers on Instagram. On Twitter, she only follows 18 people.
“It used to be the (traditional media) was the only way we can reach out to our fans, right, in the last five years or maybe 10 years, it’s not the case anymore,” said Djokovic.
“We have our own platforms, our own social media accounts through which we are able to communicate directly with fans.
“Naomi, she’s very young and she grew up with obviously with social media and ability to speak out through her channels.”