Swimming legend Phelps sends Osaka support over French Open withdrawal

The 23-time Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, who is now a mental health advocate, joins growing chorus of fellow athletes backing Japanese star Osaka Naomi.

By ZK Goh

Olympic swimming legend and 23-time gold medallist Michael Phelps has sent his support to Japanese tennis star Osaka Naomi after the latter withdrew from the French Open citing her mental health after declining to attend press conferences and being fined for it.

Osaka had announced before the start of the tennis season's second Grand Slam that she would not be attending press conferences, saying she wanted to protect her mental health, and expressing her hope that any fines she accrued would be donated to mental health charities.

However, organisers warned the Japanese player that repeated failures to meet her media obligations could lead to her being defaulted from the tournament, after which Osaka posted a message on social media on Monday (31 May) that she was withdrawing, explaining she had "suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a hard time coping with that".

Phelps, a mental health campaigner since his second retirement from the pool, told CNN: "She's showing her vulnerability and she's doing it her own way.

"I was so happy for her to be able to to share exactly what she wanted."

Widespread support from across sports

Osaka's withdrawal from the tournament was met with widespread support from both inside and outside tennis – fellow players Venus Williams and Coco Gauff, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton, Brooklyn Nets basketball guard Kyrie Irving and eight-time Olympic athletics champion Usain Bolt all commented on the Japanese's Instagram post.

Now, Phelps has added his voice to the chorus of backing for Osaka.

"I think back to the struggles that I went through when I was competing," Phelps said. "I don't know if I would have been able to take my own words and put them on a platform for everybody to see like she's putting herself out there.

"It said in the message that she loves playing tennis and she wanted to play tennis and maybe that helps her feel like her authentic self. So I was ecstatic to see how everything came across, but I was also very saddened to see how much backlash there was. This is a human being that's sharing her feelings and emotions.

"If your mental health is off, you're not going to feel a hundred percent yourself," he added.

"It's pretty powerful to see Naomi use her platform and take this time for herself. She wants to get herself better. I can't say it enough – I think this is incredible; I think it's awesome. It's so powerful what she did and I wish her the best."