Tennis legend John McEnroe expressed support for Naomi Osaka, the 23-year-old tennis superstar who has made headlines for the steps she’s taken to prioritize her mental health.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times that came out Friday, McEnroe, a former world No. 1 player who has seven Grand Slam singles titles to his name, said he could “relate” to Osaka’s statements about anxiety and mental health.
“It’s extremely important, probably more so than ever because of this pandemic,” McEnroe said of how outspoken Osaka has been about her own mental health journey.
“I felt like my legs were shaking the first time I stepped foot at 18 [years old] on the center court of Wimbledon,” continued McEnroe, who is now a tennis analyst and occasional actor. (His most recent gig was providing narration for the Netflix show “Never Have I Ever”). “It was overwhelming to play Jimmy Connors and to have all these people … I found that I was more nervous going into the press conference. So I can relate to what [Osaka is] saying and I sympathize with it.”
Osaka, citing mental health concerns, dropped out of the French Open in May after tournament organizers fined her for refusing to participate in post-match press conferences.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” she said of her decision to not speak to media.
Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner who is ranked second in the world in women’s tennis, later withdrew from the German Open and announced her decision to drop out of Wimbledon to take “some personal time with friends and family.”
Her agent said last month that she was still expected to play in the upcoming Olympics, where she will represent Japan.
In his L.A. Times interview, McEnroe said he was “on her side because I want to see her flourish because it’s good for the sport.”
“She’s a big star,” he said. “When she went out last year at the [U.S.] Open, and she was wearing the mask with George Floyd’s name, it really had a big impact, I think, for us as a sport that she was sending a really strong message.”
He added that Osaka’s experience with the press has shown that there’s clearly something “wrong” with the current system.
“She’s the highest paid female athlete in the world, so if someone that makes tremendous sums of money can’t handle it, you’re like, ‘Whoa, wait, something’s wrong with this,’” he said. “So hopefully it’ll get better soon.”
In an interview last month, McEnroe expressed concerns that Osaka might retire early like Swedish legend Bjorn Borg, who left the sport at the age of 26 after winning 11 Grand Slam singles titles. Borg said at the time that he was feeling burned out.
“There’s a danger that Osaka is not going to keep going,” McEnroe said on his brother Patrick McEnroe’s “Holding Court” podcast.
“I feel really concerned, because Bjorn Borg was one of the best things that ever happened to our sport, and I feel like he was pushed out of the game. And I think Osaka’s feeling something similar right now,“ he added.
A new Netflix docuseries about Osaka’s life was released on Friday. She has expressed trepidation about how the series will be received, saying on social media that it was “in some ways my soul and a reflection of who I am.”
“I hope there are pieces that people can relate to and maybe other pieces that would help people understand why I make the choices I make,” she wrote on Instagram. “If it doesn’t that’s cool too, it took me a while but I realize that I can’t please everyone and I’m really not trying to.”
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