The season of clay isn’t perhaps the best time for volleys. But ever since Naomi Osaka expressed her desire to excuse herself from post-match interactions with the press, plenty has been fired at the Japanese star. Some from the press have been seeing red, concerned about the ramifications of such an action from one of the most marketable athletes in the world.
As promised, Naomi put her feet into a bucket of ice at the end of her first-round win over Patricia Tig. Fédération française de Tennis, the custodian of the French Open, wasted no time to breathe fire and keep matters warm with a stern warning and a fine of USD 15,000 in response to Naomi’s absence from the post-match presser. The fine may not have rattled Osaka, as much as the FFT’s threat to throw her out of the event if she continued staying away from the interview room.
Since then, much of the action has shifted off the courts as the Grand Slams came together in a collective push to resist Osaka’s departure from the norm in the sternest manner possible. In a joint statement signed by the four majors in tennis, they laid out an elaborate argument for their decision to fine Osaka and threaten her with stricter action extending beyond the French Open if she continued to stay away from the post-match pressers.
The series of events, though, suggest that the relationship between the players and the management of the sport is far from cosy. The world’s No.2 found it convenient to announce her decision to skip the media interaction over social media rather than reach out directly to the FFT. It does not bode well for the business and its culture if a top athlete decides to dwell outside about her predicament rather than bring it to your notice.
The situation is only accentuated when the Grand Slams make it public knowledge that they were unable to speak with Osaka despite trying.
Feels like a classic frosty relationship, doesn’t it?
The joint statement, issued on 30 May, spoke of the need for engagement with players to understand their perspectives and improve their experiences. Some have argued that it sounded shallow, considering that it is their duty to enable such an environment instead of ruing its absence, in response to a desperate plea for help from one of their top players. Irrespective of what the statement said, the four biggies were seemingly exercising raw power with an iron fist in the face of a deviation from standard practice.
Osaka is an intelligent young woman, even though she may be in great distress. In a practical move, the Japanese star walked away from the event, deciding to prioritise her health.
Doubt is a constant companion, like a demon playing with the strings of our minds. And athletes are no exception. That is partly why families, coaches and therapists play such a great role in shaping the careers of these stars, watering the sprouts of their confidence and willpower to carry on well after they achieve their wildest dreams.
It is one thing to oppose her decision, it is completely beyond logic to force your view and expect Osaka to fit the stereotypical superhuman image of an athlete of high calibre. In the end, the young woman is a human being and how her body and mind respond to situations isn’t open to the judgment of the fans, media or the organisers around the sport. We have to respect her experiences and help her out, if possible.
The angst of the tennis world is understandable. Even though the work on the court is the most important expression for a player, the media interaction after the contest opens a window to the mortal being. A well-thought enquiry could lead to a disarmingly honest response, bringing the athlete closer to the consumer. It can also provide a very nuanced, insightful view into the bout on the square, something that may not be immediately visible to the naked eye even from the best seat in the house.
The presser is an opportunity for the athlete to tease and trick opponents into a cocoon of false comfort, by driving a narrative that could betray their actual strategy. In the case of seasoned professionals, such as Roger Federer, it is also a valuable platform to build their personality and appear tantalisingly approachable. Not only does this endear them to the fans, but these interactions also help the athlete build a brand, drawing open the commercial curtains that surround the circus.
But where do we draw the line? What is the point at which we return the athlete, an individual, his/her or their freedom to control where and how they wish to express themselves? These are tricky questions and there are no easy answers.
It is a great tragedy for us to learn that Osaka slipped into lengthy bouts of depression soon after she won the first major title of her career. On the outside, a victory over the mighty Serena Williams on one of the biggest stages in the sport ought to call for a celebration. Yet, all of 20, Osaka found herself sliding into bouts of depression. This is the world we live in today.
Self-care is essential and primarily something that Naomi alone can speak about and decide, in this particular instance. Hypothetically, if Naomi had issued the second release first and stayed away from the tournament in the first place, she would have drawn nothing but empathy from around the world. Unfortunately, though, Naomi addressed her situation iteratively, first expressing her desire to skip the presser before finally deciding to withdraw.
But what about the responsibility of the WTA, the ITF and the Grand Slam organisations? After all, many feel, they are parasitic organisations that exist because of the players. Far from looking after the well-being of the players that they market relentlessly for profits, if they do not even nurture channels of communication to engage amiably and promote a culture of care in these organisations, aren’t they failing in their basic responsibilities?
It is not uncommon for athletes to arrive at the interview room and find a couple of media professionals waiting to speak with them. I have personally witnessed Stanislas Wawrinka being brought to the press room only to be returned immediately as there was no one from the media to ask questions. What is the responsibility of the onsite media in terms of attending these events mandatory to the players? Who shall govern that?
On another note, only the big stars of the sport get called to the press conference. If the tournaments and the tour organisers make it mandatory for players to attend these press conferences, what are they doing to guarantee an intelligent audience for the player to interact with? The media gets a selective pass and they pick and choose interactions based on the interest of their audience and editors. The players, central to the very act, do not get a choice.
But the most important concern amid the questions posed by Osaka is about the well-being of the players. While we have seen the world’s No. 2 taking to social media to issue her comments, we are unaware of her interactions with the WTA and the ITF about her concerns regarding mental health. While Osaka has a few weeks to receive the care she needs and contemplate a return to tennis, the authorities need to look beyond the event and find ways to engage with their players at a meaningful level. Accountability cannot be a one-way street, with no responsibility assumed by a body that owes its very existence to the excellence produced by the players.
Boris Becker knows a thing or two about facing intense media scrutiny having burst into the spotlight as a 17-year-old Wimbledon champion, not very unlike Naomi, who won her first major at just 20 years of age. The German expressed concern for the impact of these recent events on an enormously promising career.
“I heard her first response a couple of days ago about this media boycott and that is something to be always taken seriously, especially from such a young woman,” Boris Becker said during a broadcast on Eurosport.
“She couldn’t cope with the pressure of facing the media after losing a match, but that happens frequently and you have to deal with it.
“If she can’t cope with the media in Paris, she can’t do it in Wimbledon or the US Open. So, I almost feel like her career is in danger due to mental health issues.”
The mother of all ironies played out after Osaka announced her withdrawal from the tournament. FFT President Gilles Moretton came to the press room to issue a prepared statement. He read, haltingly, from a written statement. As soon as he reached the last line, he walked out of the room without taking a single question from the media personnel.
Osaka did pretty much the same. Unfortunately for the young woman, she had to withdraw and walk away from the tournament.
(Anand Datla is a sportswriter and a social worker with over two decades of experience in narrating tales of valour and vain efforts from around the world. He has attended and reported from international sporting events in badminton, cricket, golf and tennis.)