MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Naomi Osaka, the second-ranked woman in tennis and the highest-paid female athlete in the world, has quit the French Open. Osaka had announced last week she would be skipping press conferences at the tournament, citing concerns for her mental health. She followed through on that promise yesterday after winning in the first round. Tennis officials responded with a $15,000 fine and threats of further penalties.
Well today, Osaka shared on social media that she would withdraw and eventually hopes to, quote, "work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans." Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated is in Paris. He's at the Open. He joins us now.
JON WERTHEIM: Hi there. How are you?
KELLY: I'm all right, thank you. How surprising is this? What do you make of Naomi Osaka's decision?
WERTHEIM: It's been a very strange several days, even by tennis standards. It's really regrettable. It's really unfortunate. I mean, I think Naomi Osaka's mental health ought to be our paramount concern, but no one has covered themselves in glory here. This was a situation that escalated quickly and didn't have to. This has been a big surprise. I mean, Roger Federer played today. Serena Williams played today. And the big story of the day is obviously Naomi Osaka's withdraw.
KELLY: Yeah, not out on the courts today. I gather the French Tennis Federation made a statement to journalists today, called her withdraw unfortunate, wished her well. And in an irony that was, I'm guessing, not lost on you, the French Tennis Federation president did not take any questions at the press conference today.
WERTHEIM: Is it a press conference if you don't take questions? Yeah. I mean, there are so many levels of irony and concentric circles of irony, but the French Federation took a very hardline stance. And, you know, at some level, you know, the shots were fired, and bluffs were called. And that - Naomi Osaka is no longer in the tournament, and now they're backpedaling a little bit.
KELLY: Yeah. She wrote in her post today about how she has suffered long bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open. Can you just remind us what happened there?
WERTHEIM: At the 2018 U.S. Open, she plays her first big final. She plays Serena Williams. And that was a controversial match that people will remember, where Serena Williams was penalized for conduct. And Naomi Osaka wins this tournament, wins this match, and yet she's booed. To her absolute credit, she won the very next major event she played. She's won two more since then. She's won four majors. So this is a player who had this fairly strange if not traumatic first breakthrough, but then recovered and really established herself as this bona fide star.
Her mental health challenges - that is not a secret. I mean, she has said at one point, you know, I am weird. It's kind of a fact. She's spoken very openly and admirably. And I think that's one of the things that's so sort of maddening about this, that anyone with a little bit of nuance and a little bit of context knew that her announcement was an athlete's - I mean, really, a cry for help is really what it was.
This was about an athlete who felt broken. This was not any sort of act of defiance. This was not an entitled athlete who is blowing off a convention. I mean, this was someone who was wounded, and...
WERTHEIM: It's really a pity that the tennis administrators didn't know it.
KELLY: Just 30 seconds or so left. But to her point about wanting to make things better, to get the rules changed on this, how likely is that?
WERTHEIM: I think we can all examine whether these press conferences that she finds can be so traumatic, if that's the best way to do business. I think a lot of this is about her and about her getting to a healthier space. And I suspect when she does, it's not going to be about making institutional changes. I think she just wasn't up to the press conference format, and that really wasn't handled with a great deal of sensitivity.
KELLY: That is Jon Wertheim, executive editor and senior writer for Sports Illustrated, talking to us from Paris about Naomi Osaka and her decision today to pull out of the French Open.
Thank you, Jon.
WERTHEIM: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.