PARIS (AFP) - World No. 1 Novak Djokovic hailed Naomi Osaka as "brave and bold" for withdrawing from the French Open and revealing her struggles with anxiety and depression but admitted he wasn't surprised she had been threatened with a Grand Slam ban.
"I support her. I think she was very brave to do that. I'm really sorry that she is going through painful times and suffering mentally," said Djokovic on Tuesday (June 2).
"This was, I must say, a very bold decision from her side. If she needs to take time and reflect and just recharge that's what she needed to do, and I respect it fully. I hope that she'll come back stronger."
Osaka, the 23-year-old world No. 2, and four-time major winner, said she will take a break from tennis, putting her participation at Wimbledon and her home Olympics at risk.
She was fined US$15,000 and threatened with disqualification from Roland Garros after she refused to honour mandatory media commitments.
She claims they are detrimental to her mental health and likened the traditional post-match news conference to "kicking people when they're down".
Osaka said her mental health struggles began in 2018 when she won the first of her four majors at the US Open in a controversial final against Serena Williams.
"The truth is I have suffered bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that."
"In Paris, I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences."
Djokovic said he was not surprised that the Grand Slams had threatened to extend sanctions against Osaka even for future majors.
"The Grand Slams are protecting themselves and their own business," said Djokovic.
"Of course they are going to follow the rules and they are going to make sure that you are complying. Otherwise you'll be paying fines and getting sanctioned. It's not surprising to me that that was their reaction."
Djokovic also hinted at the generational shift in the sport where traditional mainstream media is often eclipsed by an athlete's own social media platforms.
Osaka has 2.3 million followers on Instagram. On Twitter, she only follows 18 people.
"It used to be the (traditional media) was the only way we can reach out to our fans, right, in the last five years or maybe 10 years, it's not the case anymore," said Djokovic.
"We have our own platforms, our own social media accounts through which we are able to communicate directly with fans.
"Naomi, she's very young and she grew up with obviously with social media and ability to speak out through her channels."
Former US Open champion and WTA Players' Council member Sloane Stephens praised Osaka on Tuesday and said she should be supported and applauded for her decision to withdraw.
"Having to take a step back and say, 'Hey, I need to do this for me', we should support her and applaud her, because a lot of people wouldn't do that," Stephens said after her first round victory.
"A lot of people play through being miserable and being upset and not being able to speak out and say those things."
Stephens, the 2017 US Open champion who was elected to the Players Council in August 2019, said she hopes the Japanese star will come back stronger after her time away from the tour.
"We should be more accepting and allow her to take the time she needs to work on herself and better herself so she can be in a better position to play tennis and be happy and enjoy her tennis," she said.
"But I think there definitely needs to be more open dialogue on what not only her but everyone on tour goes through. I think we don't talk about it enough," she said, adding that she hopes Osaka's decision will inspire others to speak out when they are struggling with their mental health.
"Feelings are real and we're all human, so I hope she takes the time she needs. I hope she feels better and I hope she gets back to winning."
Coco Gauff, who shared an emotional on-court interview with Osaka after falling to her at the 2019 US Open, echoed Stephens' comments.
"Obviously I have some great moments with her on court and off court," Gauff said after her first round victory.
"It's unfortunate that she's going through what she's going through. I can only lend out a hand for support. Tour isn't the easiest. I talk to other players and they have gone through similar things in the past," she said.
"I hope that she can beat that and come out better and stronger."