Serena Williams offered her support to Naomi Osaka on Monday after the Japanese player’s decision to withdraw from the French Open in the wake of her boycott of press conferences.
n a statement on Monday, Osaka said she did not want her stance to become a distraction and said that she had been dealing with mental health issues since 2018.
Williams, 39, was inevitably asked for her reaction to Osaka’s decision following her first-round win over Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu.
“Honestly I just found out before I walked into the press conference, so that’s the extent of it right now for me,” Williams told reporters.
Pushed for her opinion on Osaka’s claim last week that post-match media conferences were damaging her mental wellbeing, and Monday’s unexpected development, Williams said: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi.
“I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions.
“We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick (skinned). Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.
“You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that’s the only thing I can say. I think she’s doing the best that she can.”
Williams said it was important for players to have someone to use as a “sounding board” in tough times.
“You have to be able to make an effort and say, I need help with A, B, C, and D, and talk to someone,” she said.
“Whether it’s someone at the WTA or whether it’s someone in your life. Maybe it’s someone that you just talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been in that position, too.
“I’ve definitely had opportunities to talk to people, kind of get things off my chest that I can’t necessarily talk to anyone in my family or anyone that I know.”
Leading figures in tennis and sport have rallied to support Osaka. While her original stance had earned little backing from her fellow professionals, most of whom saying that dealing with the media was part of the job, her withdrawal triggered a wave of support from around the sporting world.
“So proud of you,” multiple Grand Slam winner and Serena’s sister, Venus Williams, posted on Twitter. “Take care of yourself and see you back winning soon!”
Younger American players Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens also chimed in with messages of support as the focus shifted from Osaka’s responsibilities to her wellbeing.
Billie Jean King echoed comments from fellow women’s tennis trailblazer Martina Navratilova about the importance of mental health.
“It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression,” King wrote on social media.
“Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. We wish her well.”
There were also messages of support posted on social media from athletes in other sports, with golf’s Michelle Wie, NFL players Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett as well as multiple Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt offering their backing.
“You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this – but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect,” wrote NBA All Star Steph Curry.
There was some criticism of Roland Garros organisers for their handling of the matter.
French Tennis Federation President Gilles Moretton read a prepared statement on Monday offering Osaka their support but the irony of him not taking questions, given the context of the row, was not lost on some.
“So the FFT handled the Ms Osaka mental health concerns without empathy or sensitivity. Then the FFT President refuses to take questions at a presser. An own goal,” wrote former Australian tennis official Richard Ings.
Japan’s Osaka, who according to sports business website Sportico earned $55.2m over the past 12 months, is expected to be one of the biggest attractions at the Tokyo Olympics in July and August.
The 23-year-old concluded her statement by saying she would be taking some time away from tennis and organisers of that already troubled event will be desperately hoping she will be back on court long before the Games get underway.