Sport loves athletes with mental health issues – if they just shut up and play

Amazing, really, that the most appalling people in tennis are not the ones who applaud piously when the Wimbledon umpire tells the crowd to ensure their mobile phones are switched to silent, nor even the ones who are far more hysterically enchanted by the appearance of a pigeon on Centre Court than they ever could be by an otherworldly Roger Federer forehand.

Much more ghastly are those simply unable to deal with world No 2 Naomi Osaka announcing last week that she didn’t feel mentally up to doing press conferences at the French Open. This drew frothing anger from all the usual suspects, including the only highly paid news anchor in history so fragile that he recently stormed off air on his own show. The French Open fined Osaka for missing her first-round press conferences, and the official Roland Garros Twitter account posted (then later deleted) a collage of players doing press conferences with the leadenly pointed caption: “They understood the assignment.” On Monday, Osaka announced that she would be pulling out of the entire tournament , revealing she had had long bouts of depression since winning the US Open in 2018, and had often struggled to cope.

You do have to admire tennis’s position on health. The women’s No 2 has been pushed into withdrawing from a grand slam for having the temerity to take a small step to protect her own mental equilibrium, while the men’s No 1 has spent the past 14 months continually honking out anti-Covid vaccine messages . Novak Djokovic has not been officially censured for that, nor for the ridiculous super-spreader tournament he hosted across the Balkans last summer against all advice, which saw several players (including him) catch Covid. As for the hierarchy of the sport’s sins, how predictable that it should be “doing press conferences” that united all four slams in a joint condemnatory press release, while they remain utterly silent on world No 6 Alexander Zverev many months after he was accused in great detail of domestic violence and mental abuse by his ex-girlfriend. Zverev issued a denial; and denial in any case remains tennis’s comfort zone. For a major sport it is fundamentally incurious, testing for performance enhancing drugs, according to a 2016 investigation, at the same levels as kayaking or handball.

Anyway, back to Osaka. If you’re not familiar with the French Open, it’s a tournament in which the best tennis players in the world are split by means of a draw and have to outperform each other at a series of press conferences. I mean, I think? Otherwise how much can it honestly matter if a 23-year-old does or doesn’t turn up to them and go through the banalities? This is TENNIS. Watch the match, listen to the commentary, read the analysis, and if there’s still something you didn’t understand, then honestly just naff off and read a children’s book instead.

Alas, it seems that “scrutiny” is a cornerstone of both liberal democracy and clay-court singles. And yet, it does seem quite mad that we even use the same word for asking a tennis player what went wrong with their serve as we use for asking a health minister if he lied about discharging untested vulnerable people into care homes.

We don’t know quite why the frothers are so angry about Osaka, because they’re currently too angry to precisely explain. So I’m only speculating, but I imagine one woman’s decision not to do press conferences at the French Open is regarded as that most all-purpose of bogeymen: the thin end of the wedge. The thin end of the wedge is the street name of the slippery slope. One minute you’re allowing a 23-year-old not to say whether she does or doesn’t feel the third set tie-break could have gone better; the next, no one is answering any questions about third set tie-breaks, fans are only able to find out how players feel from their multiple daily social media updates, and sponsors are paying stars less because no one’s sitting in front of their logos to take questions any more.

In which case, I’m going to go out on a limb and say … whatever? Never mind? Big wows? Fred Perry never had to take this many questions, and maybe the players of the future won’t either. I know we have to pretend there’s a continuum between this and actual totalitarianism, but let’s not and say we did.

The weird thing is that we DO want athletes to have mental health issues – very much so in fact – but we only want them to reveal them at a time and a place that suits us. Namely, after they’ve retired, and in a book. Then we can profess ourselves fascinated to have learned that an athlete walked out for this or that fixture absolutely broken inside. The key thing is that you couldn’t tell from the outside – that’s the bit we love. The hidden pain, the belated literary reveal. If they won the fixture, we like to learn from the book that they didn’t mean whatever elated thing they said to the journalists at the press conference afterwards – they were just going through the motions because they were broken inside. If they lost, we like to learn from the book that it wasn’t for whatever reasons they gave the journalists at the press conference afterwards – they were just going through the motions because they were broken inside.

It’s almost as if the common denominator here is the fact that the press conference is mostly a place where one goes through the motions and just says some shit to shut them up. Any athlete lauded for their honesty about mental health – “demons”, in sporting parlance – is only lauded if it’s long after the event. The same people who raved about Tony Cascarino’s brilliant autobiography Full Time would have lost their minds if the footballer had dared voice any of his turmoil while he was actually playing.

Tennis was quick to tell us Osaka had been fined for behaviour judged “detrimental or injurious to the grand slam tournaments”. This reminds me of the Football Association’s charge of “bringing the game into disrepute”, which it likes to level at players who’ve done a bad tweet, when no one has done as much to bring the game into disrepute quite so serially as the FA itself. It’s the same with tennis. Do remember that the minute she came back off a drugs ban, Maria Sharapova was given a wildcard into the main draw of the US Open, and other players bumped off Arthur Ashe for all her primetime matches. In many and various ways down the years, no one has acted in a way more injurious to grand slams than the grand slams themselves. You’ll never see them do a press conference about that, though, so let’s not wet our pants when the mere players don’t feel able to either.