Case Study #7: Naomi Osaka’s Public (and Private) Approach to Mental Health

By Pruistin Ramadhan, 2024


Naomi Osaka is a four-time grand slam tennis champion, making her one of the best players the world has ever seen. Owing in large part to her skills and fame, she has gained enormous popularity. However, after receiving overwhelming fame in the media spotlight, she had to deal with mental issues that compromised her play on the court. Although she was obligated to participate in a press conference during the French Open in 2021, Osaka decided to skip it.

The French Open threatened to fine her $15,000 because she declined to participate in any press conferences during the tournament (Suliman, 2021). Other grand slam tournaments then threatened that she could be suspended. Osaka then decided to take a break from tennis to recharge her mental health (Carayol, 2021), a decision that garnered negative media coverage and public criticism.

Action and Analysis

Naomi Osaka’s initial announcement that she did not want to participate in a press conference precipitated a PR crisis. Her initial announcement was criticized by both the media and the public (Carayol, 2021).

After facing a fine and suspension from the French Open, she finally wanted to talk to the media. Osaka’s public relations team did a good job, but only after the initial crisis did they finally try to manage it. Her PR team addressed the public, stating that her withdrawal from the French Open was due to her mental health. They had several key actions in response to this crisis. Her PR team’s first step was to publicly support Osaka’s decision to prioritize her mental health. This action validated Osaka’s feelings and PR message.

When crafting their message for the media, her team crafted it for the tournament organizers, as this group had the most interest in the outcome, vaulting them into the position of being Osaka’s primary audience. The secondary audience was sponsors, supporters, and Osaka’s fellow athletes. And, of course, this was a topic of general interest as the story circulated in mainstream news and social media, as well.

To get her message out, Osaka targeted Time Magazine, a major international publication—and arguably the top news magazine in America. She penned an essay with a title that captured both her personal journey and her message to her target audiences: “It’s O.K. Not to Be O.K.” (Osaka, 2021). This essay earned her the front cover of the magazine, pairing her picture and the words, displayed publicly in front of millions of subscribers, as well as anybody who saw the magazine cover as they shopped.

The encoded slogan-like headline from Osaka’s PR team conveyed her key message, which is that people deserve time to care for their mental health. In her Time essay, she was transparent about her journey in tennis and her struggle with mental health. First, she apologized for the inconvenience caused by her non-participation and clarified that the press themselves were never the issue, but rather that the traditional format of the press conference was the issue (Osaka, 2021). Osaka mentioned that she had never been media trained, so the reporters would get what they saw (Osaka, 2021). Osaka’s essay then argued how the sports world can improve in the future to support athletes’ mental health.

Pressured to disclose her symptoms because the press and the tournament did not believe her (Osaka, 2021), Osaka wanted the press and tournament organizers to be more understanding and humane towards athletes. Osaka listed fellow athletes Michael Phelps, Steph Curry, and Novak Djokovic, as well as Michelle Obama—all household names—who had supported her in her mental health journey (Osaka, 2021). By mentioning these influential people, she gained respect and validity in her response to the crisis. In her closing statement, she continuously thanked everyone who had supported her.

Lessons from Naomi Osaka’s PR Team

Being transparent and acknowledging vulnerability can humanize public figures and make them more relatable to the general public. By taking this approach and supporting their client, Osaka’s PR team was able to be ethical in conveying their messages. A mental health need can occur in anyone in any profession. Because the authentic communication made Naomi Osaka more relatable, people empathized with her and understood what she was going through.

The team crafted an authentic message that involved emotions and reasoning towards her departure from the French Open. By connecting the message and the emotions, audiences empathized and saw her as credible and trustworthy. Her PR team partnered with professionals in the mental health field to get the resources that she needed. In her messages, she also educated the tournament organizers and the public about athletes’ mental health, letting them know that athletes have the same basic needs as any other person. At the end of the day, Naomi Osaka empowered families to navigate mental health better (Palumbo, 2023). Because of her PR team, Osaka was able to help people who struggle with mental health and she was able to defend and even further her credibility, even rebuilding positive relationships with the media again.

Naomi Osaka became the face of mental health in the sports industry. She advocated for mental health and helped break stigmas surrounding mental health needs in sports. In doing so, she gained trust and respect from the community and the media could change their perspective towards her. By educating the public about the importance of mental health, the tournament organizer and her supporters supported her decision.

What can be Improved

Naomi Osaka’s PR team could have been more proactive in managing the crisis. They could have minimized the negative outcomes by more immediately developing messages that related to Osaka’s mental health struggles. There should have been a better communication channel to communicate her struggles with press conferences. There was a miscommunication where the media saw her as the antagonist because she did not want to do any press conferences. There could have been a more open dialogue with the tournament organization so that the issue of fines could have been pre-empted. Naomi Osaka’s PR effort could also do more to collaborate with mental health organizations to support her case.


Because Naomi Osaka’s decision to step away from the French Open threatened her career in tennis, her PR team needed a way to connect the client emotionally to a range of audiences. Because her PR team was able to identify who their audiences were, they were able to craft an authentic message that directly spoke to the media and tournament organizer to gain their sympathy. Osaka’s personal recovery paralleled her professional recovery and changed the narrative of both the experience of athletes and the need for organizations to account for the mental health needs of their stakeholders.

The PR lesson this story tells is about the success of open, transparent communication and the importance of establishing an authentic emotional connection between a public figure and their audience. And, in the end, Osaka won this PR crisis game, set, and match.


Carayol, T. (2021, June 4). French Open’s response to Naomi Osaka is a shameful moment for tennis. The Guardian.

Osaka, N. (2021, July 8). Naomi Osaka: ‘It’s O.K. not to be O.K.’ Time Magazine.

Palumbo, J. (2023, August 21). How Naomi Osaka is helping empower families to better navigate mental health. Forbes.

Suliman, A. (2021, June 2). Osaka’s withdrawal throws mental health into sports spotlight. NBC News.


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