Novak Djokovic has defended Naomi Osaka’s decision to walk away from the French Open citing mental health concerns, although the Serbian world number one says he is unsurprised by the reaction of tennis chiefs.
Osaka announced that she was withdrawing from this year’s Roland-Garros showpiece on Monday, after being hit with a $15,000 fine for making good on her pre-tournament pledge not to do media interviews following matches.
The Japanese four-time Grand Slam winner revealed she had been suffering “long bouts of depression” and would take time away from tennis to regroup.
The decision triggered widespread debate, with many defending Osaka’s campaign to prioritize her mental health but others accusing her of hypocrisy for wanting to pick and choose when she does media interviews, which are part and parcel of life for all players.
The organizers of the four Grand Slam tournaments, meanwhile, initially responded by threatening disqualification for Osaka for her stance, before she walked away voluntarily.
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Following his straightforward first-round victory over America’s Tennys Sandgren in Paris in a night session held without fans on Tuesday, 18-time major winner Djokovic gave his take on the issue.
“The Grand Slams are protecting themselves and their own business and they are going to follow the rules and they are going to make sure that you are complying, otherwise you will be paying fines or getting sanctioned,” said the 34-year-old.
“It’s not surprising to me that that was their reaction because we are used to this environment and this principles of us doing interviews after every match and getting to answer questions that are quite similar.
“But it is part of our sport, it is part of what we do, the media is important without a doubt. It is allowing us to have the platform to communicate with the fans, but in a more traditional way. It used to be the only way how we could reach out to our fans.”
That said, Djokovic defended Osaka’s decision, saying that interactions with the journalists had been changed by the rise of social media.
“In the last five years or 10 years it is not the case anymore as we have our own platforms our own social media accounts through which we are able to communicate directly with fans,” he added.
“Naomi is very young and she grew up with social media and the ability to speak out through her channels.
“I can understand her very well, and I empathize with her because I was on the wrong edge of the sword in my career many times with the media smiling. I know how it feels.
“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, as what I have heard. I haven’t spoken to her, but it seems like she has been struggling.
“I wish her all the best, I hope she recovers. She is a very important player, brand and person for our sport. So we need to have her back.
“This was, I must say, a very bold decision from her side, but she knows how she feels best. 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.”
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Osaka, 23, has been backed by a host of fellow players and commentators over her move, including the likes of Serena and Venus Williams, as well as sponsors Nike.
The world number two was pictured arriving back at her Beverly Hills mansion on Tuesday as she contemplates her next steps.
The star will need to make a judgement on whether she feels up to competing at the next Slam of the season at Wimbledon, which starts at the end of the month.
After an initially robust response to Osaka’s media boycott, Grand Slam bosses struck a more conciliatory tone in a new message following her withdrawal on Tuesday.
“On behalf of the Grand Slams, we wish to offer our support and assistance in any way possible as she takes time away from the court,” read a statement from the directors of Wimbledon and the French, US, and Australian Opens.
“She is an exceptional athlete and we look forward to her return as soon as she deems appropriate.
“Mental health is a very challenging issue, which deserves our utmost attention.
“It is both complex and personal, as what affects one individual does not necessarily affect another.
“We commend Naomi for sharing in her own words the pressures and anxieties she is feeling and we empathize with the unique pressures tennis players may face.”
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Back in Paris, Djokovic was joined in the second round by clay court king Rafael Nadal, who is chasing a record-extending 14th title at Roland-Garros.
The Spaniard swept past Alexei Popyrin of Australia in straight sets as he bids for a 21st Grand Slam title, which would put him one ahead of Swiss great Roger Federer in the overall men’s rankings.
Federer himself returned after a 16-month absence from Grand Slams to beat qualifier Denis Istomin in straightforward fashion in their first-round meeting.
Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are all seeded in the same half of the draw this year in Paris, meaning only one of the fabled trio will go on to contest the final.