Tennis: We need to do more about player mental health, says ITF chief

Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open in May highlighted the issue of athlete well-being.
Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open in May highlighted the issue of athlete well-being.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Tennis governing bodies take mental health issues extremely seriously but are aware that more needs to be done to support players in that area, International Tennis Federation (ITF) chief David Haggerty told Reuters.

Naomi Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open in May highlighted the issue of athlete well-being, and after American gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the team and all-around events this week in order to protect her mental health, the subject is back in focus.

"Mental health is very, very important," Haggerty, who is also an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member, said in an interview at the Games.

"As a normal course of business we work with the men's and women's tours together to really make sure we are there for the players, that they have the ability to talk to someone to get help when they need it in the proper way.

"But we think we can still do better."

Osaka first made the stance that she would not speak to the media at the French Open to protect her mental health. Organisers of the clay-court Grand Slam fined her US$15,000 (S$20,200) after she boycotted the post-match news conference. They also joined forces with the other three Grand Slams to threaten her with expulsion from Roland Garros as well as barring her from entering other majors.

That forced Osaka to withdraw from the French Open and she also revealed how she has struggled to deal with depression for a number of years - and it was only then that the tennis authorities admitted they needed to do more to help players.

Haggerty said the ITF's sports science and medical commission had started looking at new ways to address the issue, which he thought had been compounded for some players by the global health crisis.

"We've also engaged with the IOC and other groups so it becomes more than just tennis but sportwide," he said.

"I think the athletes, after 15 to 18 months of lockdown in sport, it's a difficult time. We need to be there for the athletes and certainly tennis takes it very seriously."

The Covid-19 pandemic caused massive disruption to the global tennis calendar and blew a big hole in the finances of the game.

As a consequence, the ITF joined the ATP, the WTA and the four Grand Slam boards to form a "T7 working group" to examine areas of collaboration such as a unified calendar, shared commercial offerings, sponsorship and television deals.

"The pandemic has certainly intensified our discussions," said Haggerty, 64.

"Everybody wants to work together the best they can, they each have different stakeholders. But I think we have good collaboration. What comes from it? We'd have to see.

"These things take time. I don't want to build up big hope that the world is going to change with this. At the same time I think we're making progress and working together."