Serena Williams on Naomi Osaka's controversial French Open exit: 'I know what it's like'

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·3-min read

The biggest controversy of the 2021 French Open came to an end on Monday with Naomi Osaka's withdrawal, but the debate around the four-time Grand Slam champ figures to continue for some time.

Osaka announced her withdrawal from the tournament via a Twitter statement after she was fined and threatened with a default for refusing to speak with the media, a choice she ascribed to concerns about her mental health. The situation has sparked a loud conversation about the mental health of athletes and the role of media in professional sports.

Serena Williams, the player Osaka grew up idolizing, just wants Osaka to be OK, though.

Speaking with reporters after her 7-6 (6), 6-2 win over Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round, Williams said the situation reminds her of past controversies she's faced:

"The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. 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. 

"We have different personalities, and people are different. Not everyone is the same. I'm thick. Other people are thick. Everyone is different and everyone handles things differently.

"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."

Williams' support is well in line with the world of professional athletes, with many expressing their support for Osaka on social media after her withdrawal.

The 39-year-old Williams is obviously no stranger to controversy. In addition to a number of confrontations with chair umpires at the US Open, Williams and her sister Venus boycotted the Indian Wells tournament for more than a decade following an incident involving accusations of match-fixing and racial slurs from the crowd.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 18: Serena Williams of the United States (R) embraces Naomi Osaka of Japan following her defeat 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 Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Serena Williams sees a lot of herself in Naomi Osaka. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

It's unclear where Osaka and the world of tennis goes from here. Osaka clearly has a problem with how major tennis tournaments are currently run, and said in her statement she is taking some time away from tennis for her mental health. Tournament organizers have appeared to do little to accommodate the four-time Grand Slam champion.

Williams suggested Osaka become more proactive in seeking out help:

"I feel like there are a lot of articles and stuff that they put out. I think you really have to step forward and make an effort, just as in anything. You have to be able to make an effort and say, I need help with A, B, C and D and talk to someone. I think that's so important to have a sounding board, whether it's someone at the WTA or whether it's someone in your life. Maybe it's someone that you just talk to on a weekly basis.

"I've been in that position too. I've definitely had opportunities to talk to people, kind of get things off my chest that I can't necessarily talk to anyone in my family or anyone that I know.

"For me it's important to have awareness and make that step."

We'll see what Osaka and the organizers end up doing, if anything, but with Wimbledon only four weeks away, there isn't much time for significant changes to be made.

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