Lewis Hamilton has delivered a scathing criticism of the backlash against Naomi Osaka after her withdrawal from the French Open. Hamilton, speaking before this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix, praised her brave stance, condemned the organisers of the French Open for their treatment of the Japanese player after her decision not to speak to the press at the tournament and admitted he too had struggled with the demands that come with competing on a global stage.
Osaka had stated she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since winning her first grand slam title at the 2018 US Open and did not want to speak to the press at the French Open. She did not do so after her first-round win, was fined $15,000 and received a joint letter from the organisers of the four grand slam tournaments threatening her with a potential ban. A day later the 23-year-old withdrew from Roland Garros.
Hamilton had immediately supported her with a post on Instagram. “Mental health is not a joke, this is real and serious,” he wrote. “This takes a lot of courage to do. Let’s all make sure Naomi knows she’s not alone.”
Osaka attracted criticism for her stance and her withdrawal from the tournament. Hamilton was 22 when he began his F1 career and condemned the negative response to such a similarly young athlete.
“With Naomi’s scenario, she didn’t feel comfortable because of her own personal mental health, the backlash against her was ridiculous,” he said. “People were not taking into account that she is a human being. She was saying: ‘I am not well enough to do this right now.’”
In Baku the seven-time world champion was also blunt in his dismissal of how the tennis authorities had handled the situation.
“Naomi is an incredible athlete and human being and her activism has been so impactful,” he said. “But when you are at such a young age with so much weight on her shoulders, it is inevitable what happened. She was incredibly brave and it is now about asking questions of those in power, making them think about how they react because the way they reacted with the fine was not good.
“Someone talking about their personal mental health and then being fined for it was not cool. They could definitely have handled it better. I hope they take a deep dive into that and find a better way to navigate it in future. As athletes, we are pushing ourselves to the limit, we are on the edge and we are only human beings.”
Hamilton has largely enjoyed a positive relationship with the media but in 2016 he did walk out of a Mercedes press conference at the Japanese GP, unhappy with the media criticism he received for playing with his phone during a previous media event.
Osaka’s decision has started a debate over the relationship between athletes, the media and issues of mental health, one Hamilton welcomed as he empathised with Osaka, referring to the pressure he had felt on making his debut in F1 in 2007.
“When you are young, you are thrown into the limelight and the spotlight, and it weighs heavily on you. Most of us are not prepared,” he said. “I have learned the hard way, and made many a mistake. It can be daunting in front of a camera. It is not the easiest thing to do, particularly if you are an introvert and you struggle under those kinds of pressures.
“When I was young, I was thrown into the pit and I was not given any guidance or support. I was never prepared to be thrown in front of the camera or guided as to what to look out for and how to navigate through it.
“When youngsters are coming in, they are facing the same thing and I don’t know whether that is the best for them.”
Hamilton goes into this weekend’s meeting trailing Red Bull’s Max Verstappen by four points in the world championship.