What is it about the term “self-care” that activates my inner 13-year-old? Why can I not keep from rolling my eyes the tiniest bit when I hear it? The concept always felt so... California, all plush bathrobes and Soul Cycle. At least it did, until Naomi Osaka walked away from the French Open, citing self-care.
Now she’s the highest paid woman in sports, but do you remember when Osaka came on the scene? For me, it was when the 20-year-old beat her idol, also my idol, Serena Williams, in straight sets in the 2018 U.S. Open final. In what should have been Osaka’s electrifying debut, she stood at center court for the trophy presentation – and got booed. The crowd was reacting to the umpire’s penalization of Williams, which had handed the win to Osaka. It was, unquestionably, one of the more heartbreaking moments in sports, the clash of the titans waylaid by a rulebook stickler. But that had nothing to do with Osaka, who, by the way, looked to be well on her way to victory anyway.
Trapped on the podium, the invincible Osaka now seemed almost childlike, pulling her visor low to hide her tears. She lacked that hard candy coating, that PR savvy that Williams had developed – or was she born with it?
But Osaka showed up. Swiping her eyes with the back of her sweatband, she sidestepped the MC’s question to go off script, saying something so unexpected it could only have been spontaneous. She apologized, for taking what would have been a historic win for Williams. She could have dismissed the haters with a side-eye or disarmed them with a grin and taken that big fat check. Instead, she waded into the pain: in being cast as the villain, in dethroning your childhood hero, especially this way. Real to the last drop, was this one.
Three years and four Grand Slam titles later, Osaka reappeared on my radar when she spoke her truth once more. This time, it was to announce she’d had enough of the song and dance. It was too much, being constantly prodded for content, forever having to discuss her weaknesses and rehash that original drama. She had suffered bouts of depression since that 2018 final, she revealed. She was ready to pay the exorbitant fines for skipping post-game pressers, but the higher-ups took a hard line: It was full access or expulsion. So Osaka pulled a baller move. She pulled out of that tournament, and the next one, too. They could not force her to do what she didn’t want to do. How badass was that.
She reminded me of someone, some other beautiful, introverted girl forged in this soulful archetype. Ah yes, my Juno, 5, has that streak of iron in her. She refuses to pander: to be photographed or engage in small talk. She will gaze unblinkingly – though not unkindly – back at well-meaning grocery store cashiers until they give it up.
A mini-me down to her preference for boys’ clothes, Juno is sketched in my likeness but deliciously moreso: more independent, unapologetic. She is who I wish I had the courage to be. Will the world let her stay this way?
Recently, Juno – aptly named for the vengeful Roman queen of the gods – was seized by a fury one morning when I dropped her off at school. Just one of those days she didn’t want to be left. I booked it up the hill, not looking back, having learned by now that the sooner I disappeared, the better. On pickup that afternoon, I asked how the morning had gone. Oh, she stayed up on the pirate ship for a while, shrugged Juno’s teacher, wise in the ways of children. Protecting her energy, she said with a smile. I smiled, too. It was all in the framing. Her teacher did not say that Juno had sulked and refused to play with the other children. That she’d spent half the day stomping the deck like Captain Ahab, glowering down from on high. Juno’s fiery behavior did not constitute a mark of shame at all, but rather a sensible form of self-care. And when she was ready to play, down she came.
Protecting her energy. As a word geek, as a woman, I like it. That’s what Osaka is doing, instead of racking up another title. It’s what Juno is doing, when she shakes her head no: absolutely no pictures. So I put down my camera and content myself with admiring my middle child. I can’t help but think that sooner or later, the world will back her into a corner, and what then? Something tells me she’ll figure it out. She’ll find her way back to that proverbial pirate ship, batten down the hatches – and when she’s good and ready to play, down she’ll come.