Serena Williams on Naomi Osaka's Exit from 2021 French Open: 'I Know What It's Like'

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVMay 31, 2021

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Naomi Osaka of Japan shakes hands with Serena Williams of the United States in their Women’s Singles Semifinals match during day 11 of the 2021 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on February 18, 2021 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Andy Cheung/Getty Images)
Andy Cheung/Getty Images

Serena Williams had nothing but empathy for fellow tennis player Naomi Osaka on Monday.

"The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi," she told reporters when asked about Osaka's decision to withdraw from the French Open. "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. … 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."

Osaka, who was fined $15,000 for failing to meet her media requirements at Roland Garros, withdrew from the tournament Monday and released a statement explaining her decision on Twitter:

NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ @naomiosaka


"I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris," she wrote. "I never wanted to be a distraction and 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."

Williams also opened up about mental health:

Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg

Serena Williams also spoke of a need for players (and people generally) to "step forward and make an effort" when seeking help with their mental health, mentioning the help she herself has been able to receive. #RG21 pic.twitter.com/LPsSWdvRE1

Prior to the start of the tournament, Osaka announced she would not participate in press conferences during the French Open in part because she "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."

Roland Garros responded to that decision with the fine and said "the Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site."

In her announcement on Monday, Osaka explained she privately apologized to the tournament and would like to "discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans."

FFT President Gilles Moretton released a statement after Osaka withdrew:

"First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka. The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland-Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi at our Tournament next year.
"As all the Grand Slams, the WTA, the ATP and the ITF, we remain very committed to all athletes’ well-being and to continually improving every aspect of players' experience in our Tournament, including with the Media, like we have always strived to do."

Williams was not the only player to offer support for Osaka:

Billie Jean King @BillieJeanKing

It’s incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. <br><br>Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs. <br><br>We wish her well.

victoria azarenka @vika7

The challenge today is to convince people of the value of truth, honesty, compassion and a concern for others.

The support from Williams is particularly notable, as she and Osaka are two of the biggest stars in the entire sport. Osaka has frequently discussed how much she idolizes the American legend, who she famously defeated in the 2018 U.S. Open final.

On the court, Williams defeated Irina-Camelia Begu in straight sets in the first round of the 2021 French Open before her withdrawal.