Weeks After Slamming Naomi Osaka, Tennis World Praises Rafael Nadal As Both Withdraw From Wimbledon

Photo: Leonard Zhukovsky / pdrocha / Shutterstock
Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal

Twenty-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal will skip the Wimbledon and the Toyko Olympics, joining Naomi Osaka as another tennis star who's bowed out of competition during the sport's most hectic season.

After pulling out of the French Open in May, Osaka has now announced she will also skip Wimbledon, continuing her hiatus until the Toyko Olympics this summer, for which she currently plans to return.

And while Osaka is the one who plans to keep her commitment to participant in the summer Olympics, which begin on July 23, the two champions are being met with markedly different reactions from the tennis world.

In short, Nadal is being praised, Osaka is being slammed.

Why did Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka withdraw from Wimbledon?

Nadal expressed health concerns as he criticized the two-week turnaround between Roland Garros’s clay court and Wimbledon’s grass court, which he said “didn't make it easier on my body to recuperate after the always demanding clay court season.”

Injuries have plagued Nadal’s career and grass courts are well-documented to be unfavorable for the star. This will be his third time skipping Wimbledon since 2009.

Nadal said he was “listening to my body,” pointing to a desire to preserve his overall wellbeing.

“The goal is to prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy,” he wrote on Twitter.

A statement made by Osaka's agent on her behalf explained simply that she will be continuing her pause from tennis, "taking some personal time with friends and family."

Just a few weeks ago, she'd pulled out of the French Open after facing harsh backlash for refusing to participate in mandatory press conferences, which she said was due to “no regard for athletes mental health.”

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There is a double-standard apparent in the stark contrast between reactions to Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka’s tennis competition exits.

The response to Nadal on social media was broadly dominated by compassion, as it should be. Personal well-being is, of course, more important than putting on a show for tennis fans, right?

However, in the wake of Naomi Osaka’s French Open exit and the subsequent lashing she took, the double-standard in the reactions to the two tennis stars is undeniable.

Osaka made headlines in late May when her refusal to partake in the French Open’s press coverage landed her with a $15,000 fine before she eventually withdrew from the competition.

After citing mental health concerns, Osaka was pilloried for “diva behavior,” before eventually being forced to reveal a long battle with depression and anxiety that had tarnished her ability to perform media duties.

Britain’s most infamous critic Piers Morgan labeled Osaka “world sport’s most petulant little madam.”

Nadal, meanwhile, has faced high praise from fans and sporting organizations alike, who appear only to recognize the need to prioritize one’s well-being when that well-being in question is that of a man.

There is no difference between Nadal’s desire to “do what makes me happy” and Osaka’s wish to prioritize her mental health, yet only one seemed to rub people the wrong way.

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Nadal himself publicly criticized Osaka's decision to quit the French Open.

While emphasizing his respect for her decision, Nadal argued that "without the press... we probably will not be the athletes that we are today.”

He added, seemingly without irony even in light of his own past withdrawals, "We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players."

Continuing, Nadal said further, "I can’t really comment on what Naomi is feeling or her decisions she makes. At times press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s also not something that bothers me."

His comments are representative of a wider theme in the criticism of Osaka, an inability to discern that just because one person can handle something doesn’t mean another person can or should too.

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Osaka’s decision to stay out of competition for the time-being and take personal time sparks an important conversation about the need to stop separating mental and physical health.

Just because an injury can’t be seen or measured doesn’t make it invalid.

After all, Naomi Osaka may never have been sidelined by a back injury the way Nadal has, but she has yet to criticize him for attending to his because it's "not something that bothers" her.

Even Nadal himself made this connection, implying that tennis’s intense schedule was as physically demanding as it is mentally, as well as explicitly stating he was choosing to opt-out of competition before one or both deteriorate.

With two of tennis’s most famous names bowing out of some of the sport’s most famous competitions, it might be time for the tennis world to take a look inward and question the pressures placed on athletes.

While the media attacked Osaka, sports stars from Serena Williams to Kyrie Irving did offer their compassion and praise to the Japanese star for her honesty.

And, fortunately, the folks at Wimbledon gave her a positive shout out.

And if those who feel the pressure of the sporting industry firsthand can empathize with the need to take time out, there’s no reason why the rest of us shouldn’t too.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her on Twitter for more.