Tennis great Billie Jean King has praised Naomi Osaka for speaking out about mental health issues and her stance against racial injustice.
Japan’s Osaka withdrew from the French Open this year after being fined and threatened with eviction for refusing to perform media duties, which she said had contributed to the depression issues she had struggled with for years.
The 23-year-old, a four-time Grand Slam champion, also withdrew from Wimbledon, sparking a wider conversation about mental health in the sport.
Osaka was joined by King, mercurial Australian Nick Kyrgios and former American player Mardy Fish for a discussion hosted by Racquet Magazine on the eve of the US Open.
“Everyone loves you. They listen to you, and I love it when you talk and talk about your feelings. Kids need that,” King, a leading figure in the campaign for gender equality in tennis, told Osaka.
“When I was acquitted in ’81 for being gay, I lost everything in 24 hours. You can talk about these things and you’re celebrated. Other people have the same problems. But we couldn’t talk about it like you do.
“Every time I go to a place now, I have to talk about mental health. Why? Because you talked about it. That is fantastic progress.”
The 77-year-old has in the past compared Osaka’s stance off the field to that of the Original Nine, a group of players led by King who fought tirelessly to embark on a women’s professional tennis tour, leading to the creation of the WTA. in 1973.
Osaka was praised for supporting the “Black Lives Matter” campaign when she highlighted racial injustice by wearing several face masks with the names of African Americans who died in recent years during her 2020 US Open matches.
“After my first Slam, I had to be the good girl,” said Osaka. “But now that I’m talking about things that bother me, I think it confuses a lot of people. I honestly don’t know what people think of me.”
In a social media post on Sunday, Osaka said she plans to celebrate her own achievements more and not worry about the expectations others have of her as she prepares for her US Open title defense.
Kyrgios, who has been punished by authorities for his behavior on the court, said he did not feel the media cared about the players’ well-being.
But King, who has won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, said the sport’s financial strength would not have been possible without the support of the press.
“In our generation, we played for $14 a day and we played for more than ourselves,” she said.
“We only had the traditional media. So if we didn’t get them to tell our story, we wouldn’t have what we have now.”
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