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Photo credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Photo credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Three years ago, on a beautiful, pink-wispy-clouds September evening, the women’s finals of the U.S. Open in New York City took place. But the air was heavy and humid. Rain was on the way. A storm hung over Arthur Ashe Stadium too. On one side stood Naomi Osaka, at that point a relative unknown as the 19th-ranked player in the world, whose blistering aces and ground strokes had wowed audiences over the two weeks of tournament play. On the other, Naomi’s idol and the obvious fan favorite, Serena Williams, 23-time Grand Slam title winner.

I’d scored courtside seats for the match, and I watched as these extraordinary athletes exhibited pretty much opposite kinds of energy from each other for the next hour and 19 minutes. Serena, rattled by a call from the umpire in the second set, unraveled…quickly, then slowly, then at breakneck speed. When Naomi closed out the match, winning handily, there was no exuberant celebration. At the trophy ceremony, Naomi pulled her visor down and bowed her head, tears streaming down her face. She told the pro-Serena crowd, “I’m sorry…I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry that it had to end like this.”

An unsettling way to win your first Grand Slam championship, no? In a moment that should’ve been about celebration, Naomi was thinking about her opponent. Not herself.

Recently, I found a YouTube video of the post-2018 U.S. Open championship press conference, from which Naomi was whisked away soon after her tearful address to the crowd. Watching it now, you can’t help but cringe because you can see in her body language and hear in her voice that she’s thrown. It’s clear Naomi would have benefited from some time alone to process what had just happened. Instead, she’s in the lion’s den: Surrounded by cameras clicking incessantly, their flashes popping, the then 20-year-old’s eyes dart around as she tries to locate the source of each question in the room full of reporters.

Naomi answers each inquiry quietly, succinctly. In less than 10 minutes, and already probed four different ways, Naomi is asked why she apologized for her win. Raising one hand slightly in the direction of the journalist, voice catching, she courageously admits, “Your question is making me emotional.”

Photo credit: Djeneba AduayomPhoto credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Photo credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Fast-forward to 2021, and that whole scene hits differently—for me and everyone else who follows tennis. Naomi recently made the bold and controversial decision to step away from tournament press events. With one simple but powerful choice, she changed the conversation around athletes and mental health. “We live in a world where people are so quick to speak and to comment,” Naomi tells me, soon after her early, voluntary departure from the French Open in order to avoid media obligations. “Silence is almost uncomfortable.”

Now, as Naomi forges her own path, the tables have turned: It’s making people in the sports community uncomfortable. Articles have called her a “diva” and accused her of reneging on her contractual responsibilities as a tournament player to navigate the media gauntlet. The heads of the French Open fined her $15,000 and the heads of the organizations that run the Grand Slam tournaments threatened to take more severe action should she continue to sidestep press events.

Support arrived fast and furious too. Athletes like Serena Williams and Martina Navratilova, as well as NFL quarterback Russell Wilson and basketball star Stephen Curry, celebrated her bravery in Twitter messages and Instagram posts. And Naomi’s major sponsors, including the likes of Nike, released statements applauding her decision to protect her well-being.

Naomi chose to share her intention to step away from traditional press obligations on her Instagram, where she has 2.8 million followers. Later she revealed, in a series of screen grabs, exactly why she was withdrawing. We may not have seen her answering questions under the hot, fluorescent lights of the press room at Roland-Garros in Paris, but we most definitely got to hear, in Naomi’s own words, what she was thinking and feeling…including an admission of having struggled with depression since the 2018 U.S. Open.

Ideally, Naomi and I would’ve met in person for an interview. But given the events, my interactions with her for this piece took place entirely over email: her nonnegotiable, mental-health protective measure after Paris.

I feel strangely grateful for the silver lining of this unusual cover profile format. When she has the time to reflect, choose her words carefully, and open up at her own pace, much like she does on her personal platforms, Naomi reveals herself in ways that don’t come out in traditional media interviews.

Often called shy or reserved, or, more critically, standoffish, by the press, Naomi shares that she views her introspective nature as a superpower rather than a negative trait. “Growing up being [labeled] ‘the quiet one’ puts you in a box and, even worse, makes you stand out when all you want is to blend in,” she says. “But now I try to embrace and own it.”

She’s also pushed back at what you might think is par for the course in elite athlete life. “I never wanted media training,” Naomi says. “Because I didn’t want to change my personality to offer a canned response that didn’t feel like me. Yes, some people may find my personality different, just as they do my mixed-race background, but I find it to be the thing that makes me uniquely myself.” Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Naomi has lived in the United States since she was 3.

Photo credit: Hearst OwnedPhoto credit: Hearst Owned

Photo credit: Hearst Owned

No doubt about it, our conversations were on her terms. For example, when I asked her to share more about her journey with anxiety and depression, she put it into a broader context while respectfully pivoting: “I hope I was able to help some people and for them to see that even athletes are still humans like the rest of us,” she said. “And we all are dealing with something in our lives.”

It was a heartbreaking encapsulation of the high stakes and even higher pressure of playing professional sports. Athletes have their family’s hopes and dreams—and also, in many cases, their monetary investment and financial security—riding on them. “When you watch your parents working a few jobs, driving you to practice and tournaments, and really giving up their own dreams and enjoyment to better you, it’s very humbling,” says Naomi, who, like her talented but less decorated tennis-playing sister Mari, has been all-out prepping to be The Best since she was old enough to swing a racket.

Through it all, as athletes strive to be at the tip-top, they’re required to subject themselves to the scrutiny of not only stadiums brimming with fans—who may or may not boo you and scream ecstatically in support of your opponent—but every sports writer, Internet commenter, and social media troll under the sun. For college athletes, the data is alarming: About 33 percent deal with significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other conditions. For professionals, the research shows that up to 35 percent suffer from some sort of mental health issue, which could show up as stress, an eating disorder, burnout, substance misuse, or depression and anxiety.

Many argue that pro players “sign up” to live their lives in a pressure cooker. But can it also be true that there is a better way? A healthier route that protects the privacy and well-being of athletes, who are often young and very early in the lifelong process of developing effective emotional and mental coping skills? In a streaming world where high-level competitors have their own platforms and information spreads at lightning speed, do journalists watching the match in real time really need immediate prolonged access to the players to tell fans what happened?

Naomi has found unique ways to anchor herself no matter what turbulence she navigates. For instance, she plays tunes on headphones as she arrives to play a match. The ritual “helps dull my social anxiety,” as she put it. “Music calms me, it silences the noise that won’t help my game,” she says, adding that Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Saweetie are some of her favorite pre-match artists she listens to on her Beats headphones. “For me, music is inspiring and uplifting.”

Beats, a Naomi sponsor, is one of the many brands she works with that organically came up in our email correspondence. She’s one of the highest-paid athletes in the world, reportedly earning $55 million between May 2020 and May 2021. And she’s unapologetic about promoting the brands she aligns with and invests in.

For example, Naomi is quick to point out that recovery is a crucial piece of her training regimen, powered by stretching, massage, and…Hyperice, the recovery tech/tool brand. She name-checks its Normatec compression boots as crucial to her performance on the court. (I have the boots, too, so I know how magical they are.) Naomi’s transparency about her interest in working with brands and companies, not as a side hustle that is secondary to her tennis career but as equally crucial to her professional dreams and personal growth, is respectable and refreshing.

Photo credit: Djeneba AduayomPhoto credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Photo credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Naomi has an unabashedly creative side, which fuels her entrepreneurial endeavors. “When Mari and I were young, traveling to play tennis, we would read fashion magazines and talk about one day creating designs,” she says, adding that 12-year-old Naomi would never have believed she would one day work with brands like Louis Vuitton, Levi’s, and Nike, “designing my own fashion looks,” she says. “It’s rather surreal.”

She recently added a new title to her resume: CEO of Kinlò, a skin-care company she founded. “Playing in the sun since I was 3, I don’t even second-guess sunscreen and sun care,” she says. But creating sun care “specifically for skin like my own” was illuminating for Naomi. “I never imagined how eye-opening the statistics on skin cancer in Brown and Black skin would be,” she says. FYI: There has been shockingly limited research focusing on skin cancer in people of color, especially since they’re diagnosed less frequently and have significantly lower survival numbers and much worse outcomes.

“It wasn’t enough to make products that didn’t turn our dark skin white and didn’t have harsh chemicals,” says Naomi, who was adamant about creating an advisory board of MDs to help inform product development. “I also wanted to dispel the myth that just because you have dark skin and don’t burn means you don’t need to take care of and protect that skin.”

In many ways, Naomi’s business and philanthropic projects power up her mental health. A year ago, she partnered with Nike on Play Academy, a program it launched in Japan to promote activity, exercise, and teamwork in young girls. “The thought that a gesture, an activation, a program can impact and change a life, that’s really powerful to me,” she says. “Of all the things I do, I find that when I am doing my best to help others, it’s most fulfilling.” Play Academy recently expanded to the United States and Haiti.

Giving back helps her feel emotionally and mentally balanced. Ditto for meditation, which she does every morning using an app on her phone. “I have a meditation room in my house [in Los Angeles], which helps set the scene and is super tranquil,” she says.

During the pandemic, she found an unexpected upside of not traveling: cooking her own meals. She’s been tinkering with various recipes like her mom’s lamb stew, Haitian-inspired dishes, steak risotto. (“There is something so comforting about the warm and creamy rice with steak,” Naomi says.) The time at home allowed her to experiment in the kitchen, but clean eating has always been a staple of her training. She reveals that, yes, she really does get lunch from the healthy-eating chain Sweetgreen almost every day around 2 p.m., after finishing a full morning of drills on the court and conditioning in the gym.

At the time this story went to press, Naomi released a statement that she would not play Wimbledon, focusing instead on preparing for the Tokyo Olympics. That competition—which ended somewhat abruptly as she was knocked out in the third round—did not require media appearances, a welcome change for Naomi. (She did have the honor of lighting the Olympic torch at the Games’ opening ceremony.) She continues to work with the Women’s Tennis Association on additional mental health measures for athletes. And the fact that a question from a reporter at a media conference for the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati recently caused her to break down in tears serves as a reminder that the ongoing discussion of what we expect from athletes like Naomi remains super relevant.

No matter the twists and turns Naomi encounters professionally and personally, she’s firmly rooted in the belief that life is bigger than tennis. “Now more than ever I see that you can be more than just one thing,” she says. “More than just someone who plays tennis.” Kinlò, fashion collaborations, supportive sponsors, a commitment to helping girls gain access to sport—wherever the path leads, she will find her way. But she will do it on her terms, redefining at the same time what true inner strength looks like. I, for one, can’t wait to spectate and cheer her on. She’s already changed the game for every athlete who comes next.

Photo credit: Djeneba AduayomPhoto credit: Djeneba Aduayom

Photo credit: Djeneba Aduayom

This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Women’s Health; the digital version has been updated with additional information.

Photographed by Djeneba Aduayom; Styled by Karla Welch; Hair: Marty Harper at The Wall Group; Makeup: Autumn Moultrie at The Wall Group; Production: Crawford Productions

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