Tennis superstar Naomi Osaka has put the ball over the line again with her refusal to “do any press” at the French Open.
What she couched as support for mental health is, in fact, a grandiose gesture that suggests the 23-year-old is getting too big for her Nike Air Zoom GP Turbos.
“I’m writing this to say I’m not going to do any press during Roland Garros,” said Osaka in a statement posted to her social media accounts. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We are often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
She was the sole absentee from the official media day press conferences at Roland Garros before the Grand Slam got underway and refused to do a press conference after her first round win on Sunday. A day later she withdrew from the tournament. Other players did not openly criticise her. However, it is clear that, unlike her, they recognise their responsibilities to the game, to fans, to sponsors, and to journalists.
Reigning women’s champion Iga Swiatek told the New York Times that she didn’t think taking part in news conferences was difficult or had affected her mental health. The women’s No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and fellow French Open competitors Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev echoed that view in the Washington Post, saying they had no problem dealing with journalists. Nadal acknowledged the vital role that sports journalism played in the game.
Tennis great Boris Becker, writing in the Daily Mail, acknowledged the importance of mental health (and wondered whether Osaka had taken her cue from Meghan and Harry), but went further than the latter-day champions.
By refusing to discuss her matches, I think she is taking it too far. There were plenty of times when I did not enjoy talking to the press, but my manager in the early stages of my career, Ion Tiriac, told me from the start that it was part of the job. The media are like umpires, sometimes they can be annoying but you have to put up with them because they are a fact of life. If you want to put yourself out there in front of thousands of fans, and millions more on TV, and get paid a lot of money for doing that, then you have to accept it. Sponsors and TV companies pay money for a reason, that is how it works and you cannot have it both ways. It is completely diﬀerent to playing in a public park.
Becker takes the point. Professional tennis – indeed any professional sport – carries with it obligations off the field of play. Those obligations recognise the fact that, without media, tennis would have a very small fan base and would be unable to secure the sponsorship that last year saw the top 10 players – Osaka among them – earn a total of $US340 million. And few have benefitted more from media exposure in recent years than Osaka herself.
Media conferences are, in fact, for the convenience of the interviewee. Journalists don’t particularly like sharing their questions with all and sundry and they certainly would prefer to have the answers to themselves. The media conference is a way of limiting the time subjects take to deal with the media. The alternative is time-consuming back-to-back interviews.
New York Times journalist Christopher Clarey, who has covered more than 90 Grand Slam tournaments says that tennis news conferences are not what they used to be. They are generally shorter and much lighter on inquiries about tactics, technique and the match that just finished. “But they remain an opportunity for journalists to ask questions on any subject,” he says. “They also allow a chance for those who report regularly about tennis to develop a rapport with the athletes and better understand their personalities, psyches and…their motivations and intentions.”
That doesn’t sound to me like facing Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition.
In fact, many instances of over-reach have been at the expense of the journalists themselves, usually for asking stupid questions. Want an example? At the 2018 French Open Serena Williams was asked if, like Donald Trump, she was intimidated by Maria Sharapova’s shoulders. At that point Williams had beaten Sharapova in all but two of their 21 matches.
I have no issue with Osaka raising mental health as a concern. I was deeply moved by Mike King’s more meaningful decision to return his Order of New Zealand honour in protest at lack of government action on the issue here.
And last Friday, the Women’s Tennis Association acknowledged it took the issue seriously (but also emphasised the obligation players had to speak to media). So, too, do players who do not hide from the mental stresses of the sport. Iga Swiatek, for example, has prioritised the mental side of her game for years and hired a performance psychologist as part of her team.
I’m sceptical about Osaka’s gesture because it is not the first time she has overplayed her hand. Last year, she stated that she would not take part in the US Western & Southern Open semi-finals. “Watching the continued genocide of Black people at the hands of the police,” she said, “makes me sick to my stomach”. Police violence against people of colour is atrocious, but genocide? And if she wanted to make a gesture, why not say she would forego a place in the event, rather than pulling out partway through and disrupting the entire tournament? After delaying it for a day, she agreed to continue playing, only to pull out of the final citing a hamstring injury.
There have been rumbling over whether her current move against the media may have been motivated, at least in part, by her poorer past performance on clay courts, such as those at Roland Garros. And there was a clue in her social media announcement: “…I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”
In fact, she sold herself short. Her winning first round performance would have assured that a press conference highlighted the clay court turnaround. So her withdrawal is both puzzling and a warning that this talented player has become a loose cannon.
It seems the highest paid sportswoman in the world is above such irritations as media responsibilities, except on her terms.
She was dismissive over the potential fine she is likely to face. After the first round media default she was fined $US15,000. Her response, as near as I can make out, was “so what”. Her management did not immediately respond to a request for comment but the player published a cryptic message on Twitter: “Anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable.”
She can afford to be dismissive about the money. What is a fine to a player who last year earned $US37.4 million?
She may not be able to be as dismissive of threats by tennis authorities who have threatened to ban her from the four Grand Slams. Her withdrawal will heighten that risk.
Nor can she be so dismissive of the media. Her lucrative sponsorships are due not to corporate love of tennis but to the media exposure they derive from her media performances both on-court and off-court.
Off court in the past, she has been forthcoming and has had a good relationship with media. That relationship has changed.
ADDENDUM: The Osaka story has moved on since this commentary was written. She has released a lengthy statement detailing issues with mental health and depression. I have real sympathy with her position, having had a recent battle with depression myself. However, her approach to the French Open was wrong nonetheless. She should not have played at all. Her media ban was an ill-considered alternative to pre-tournament withdrawal. For the second time in a year her action had adverse impact on other players, particularly her first round opponent at Roland Garros who was denied an opportunity to advance in the tournament. Osaka is right to take time out but she must spend part of that time finding a sports psychologist to add to her team. Had she had professional advice, the story would have unfolded very differently.
A few years ago, I wrote a paper for the Broadcasting Standards Authority that had the grand title “The Epidemiology of Offence”. It was about the way ‘offence’ had permeated formal complaint processes when, in fact, it could mean anything from dislike to a harmful attack on the dignity of a group or individual. I cautioned against the use of the word because of the shades of meaning that could be applied to it.
Last week I had another example of the way our language can mean different things to different people. What is acceptable to one can be distressingly unacceptable to another.
In that case the word was ‘gang bang’.
It had been used in light-hearted banter on a radio programme and a woman had been deeply distressed by it. Her complaint, however, was rebuffed by the broadcaster who said a Google search said it meant consensual group sex. I checked: It did.
That was not the meaning the woman ascribed to it. To her, it meant gang rape.
I put the question to a Facebook group and the result was almost evenly divided between the two meanings. That came as a surprise. I, too, thought it meant gang rape.
The episode highlighted for me the difficulties that will confront the BSA when it receives the results of a survey on offensive words that it is considering. The chief executive, Glen Scanlon, noted that context (time of broadcast, the target audience, classification, and nature of the programme) will be important.
So, too, will be semantics. And the meaning of ‘offensive’.
Bouquets & brickbats
Bouquets to the finalists and winners in the Voyager Media Awards. The results attest to quality and integrity in the profession. A link to the full list of awards was carried by newbie media Newsroom and BusinessDesk.
So, a brickbat to those larger players who were too small-minded to do more than blow their own trumpets on their websites.
Here is the link, which doesn’t take up space: npa.co.nz/voyager-media-awards/2021-winners