Painfully shy and with a mouth that moves so little she looks like a ventriloquist, Naomi Osaka is an unlikely advocate. In fact, were it up to her, Osaka would probably eschew her media commitments and luxuriate in playing her favourite video games.

Yet over the past year, Osaka, the No1-ranked women's tennis player who in press conferences can make a rabbit in the headlights appear positively self-assured, has become a beacon for emotional literacy and mental health awareness.

Judged by the numbers alone, the past 12 months have been a halcyon period for the Japanese, who grew up in the United States and has a Haitian father.

Flying up the rankings from No72 to the top spot and picking up two grand slams along the way, Osaka, 21, is ostensibly living the dream. She has found the journey difficult, however, and has been startlingly open in describing her struggles — especially over the past week following her shock split from coach Sascha Bajin.


Having first of all explained that she ended the hugely successful partnership with Bajin because, "I wouldn't put success over my happiness", Osaka expanded on the theme after losing to Kristina Mladenovic in Dubai on Tuesday.

\Asked if she could block out the noise around her coaching split, Osaka said: "I couldn't. That's the result. This match is the result of that.

"See, it's a little bit hard because I feel like people are staring at me, and not like in a good way."

As she began to cry, Osaka added: "I don't think I necessarily understand what position I'm in, in a way, because last year I wasn't even anywhere close to this ranking. People didn't pay attention to me. That's something that I'm comfortable with."

Such honesty tends to be the rule rather than exception for Osaka, whose unfiltered thoughtfulness have been a welcome contrast to the normal sporting landscape of platitudes and cliche.

Just a couple of days after defeating Serena Williams in that frazzling US Open final in September, Osaka said of the mental health challenges facing elite athletes: "You can easily get depressed. You think your whole world is over."

Last April, having won her biggest title at Indian Wells, Osaka revealed: "Yesterday I woke up and I was really depressed, but I don't know why. Like, I'm so sad right now."

Admissions like these are uncomfortable but potentially game-changing in a sport that has traditionally had an awkward relationship with mental health.


The usual pattern has been for players to suppress their concerns until it is too late.

Eight-time grand slam champion Andre Agassi is an example of this trend, opting to stay quiet until revealing all in his explosive autobiography Open, in which he compared the life of a tennis player to "solitary confinement".

Removing the stigma around mental health is precisely why Osaka's candour is so important.

Seeing a player of her standing speak in these terms will help normalise the discussion.

It may also reframe the view of players such as Australian Nick Kyrgios, whose difficulties have tended to be viewed primarily as a result of indolence rather than something more deep-rooted.

The former view of ill-tempered Kyrgios may be accurate, but the more players such as Osaka open up, the more they will be viewed as human beings rather than racquet-wielding automata.

When asked last year what tips Osaka would give to young athletes, she said: "The only advice is, don't look up to me."

The reality is that they could do far, far worse.