Serena Williams voiced her support for Naomi Osaka after the Japanese star withdrew from the French Open after being threatened with expulsion over a press boycott.
Osaka caused a storm on the eve of the tournament when she revealed plans to not attend any press conferences due to mental health concerns – a vow she stuck to following her first-round win over Patricia Tig.
She was fined $15,000 (£10,600) for skipping post-match media duties and faced being kicked out of the tournament if she persisted with the media snub, only for the four-time Grand Slam champion to pull out herself on Monday.
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“I never wanted to be a distraction,” said Osaka in a statement on social media. “I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly.
"The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows that I'm introverted, and anyone that's seen me at tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
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Williams, 16 years Osaka's senior, said that the 23-year-old must be allowed to make her own decisions.
“The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi,” said Williams after her 7-6(6) 6-2 win over Irina-Camelia Begu.
“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. 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 she can.”
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Osaka's failure to attend media duties saw the four Grand Slams - Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open - release a joint statement reminding Osaka of her obligations and warning her that she faced being expelled from the tournament.
But that stance has been criticised, with some players and fans taking to social media to support Osaka.
Osaka's statement continued: "Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.
"So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it pre-emptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
"I wrote privately to the tournament apologising and saying that I would be more than happy to speak with them after the tournament as the Slams are intense. I'm gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans. Anyways hope you are all doing well and staying safe, love you guys. I'll see you when I see you."
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Watch all the action from the 2021 French Open live on Eurosport, eurosport.co.uk and the Eurosport app with 13-time champion Rafael Nadal eyeing a remarkable 14th title at his favourite event and 2020 Roland Garros sensation Iga Swiatek aiming to replicate her stunning triumph.
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