Naomi Osaka made her first ESPY Awards one to remember after shaking the sports world in recent weeks.
In her first public appearance since withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon over mental health concerns, the four-time Grand Slam champion attended the show on Saturday night in New York City, where she picked up the award for Best Athlete, Women’s Sports.
Arriving on the red carpet in a bold black and white striped top and a green Louis Vuitton skirt, the tennis superstar was accompanied by rapper boyfriend Cordae at the show, which honors the year’s top athletes and sports moments.
Osaka, who has been open about her struggles with depression and social anxiety, powered through her nerves to give a short but sweet acceptance speech later in the evening.
“I just really want to not say a long speech because I’m a bit nervous … I know this year has been really, it hasn’t even finished, but it’s been really tough for a lot of us,” she said on stage from The Rooftop at Pier 17. “For me, I just want to say, I really love you guys and this is my first ESPYS so it’s really cool to be surrounded by all these incredible athletes. I think all of you guys are really cool and I watch some of you on TV so it’s really surreal to be here … Thank you so much.”
Osaka has largely stayed off the court and out of the public eye in recent weeks after revealing she has suffered from “long bouts of depression” since the U.S. Open in 2018 and has had “a really hard time coping with that.”
The 23-year-old pulled out of Wimbledon and withdrew from the French Open after she was fined $15,000 and threatened with suspension over her refusal to participate in press for the event.
Her decision drew praise from a series of public figures and fellow athletes who supported Osaka for prioritizing her mental health over trophies and setting a powerful example of self-care.
At the start of the ceremony, “Falcon and the Winter Soldier” star Anthony Mackie, who hosted the award show, publicly called out tennis officials for unfairly punishing Osaka.
“That’s crazy. I’m no tennis exec, I don’t know, but if my sport had one of the most popular and marketable athletes on the planet, you know what I would do? I would probably make sure she felt comfortable and respected,” he said. “But hey, what do I know, right? I’m just Captain America.”
Osaka’s appearance at the award show arrived on the heels of a powerful essay she wrote for Time magazine, in which she further elaborated on her decision to briefly step away from the game.
“Perhaps we should give athletes the right to take a mental break from media scrutiny on a rare occasion without being subject to strict sanctions. In any other line of work, you would be forgiven for taking a personal day here and there, so long as it’s not habitual,” she wrote candidly. “You wouldn’t have to divulge your most personal symptoms to your employer; there would likely be HR measures protecting at least some level of privacy.”
“In my case, I felt under a great amount of pressure to disclose my symptoms — frankly because the press and the tournament did not believe me.”
The tennis champion, however, said she was eager to return to the court for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, writing that she “could not be more excited to play” in the games after taking the “time to reflect, but also to look forward.”
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