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Naomi Osaka could face "tougher sanctions" for press boycott; for now, she lets her racquet do the talking
Is the star highlighting an essential mental-health issue, or freezing out her best messenger? We won’t know until she tells us more.
Published May 30, 2021
WATCH: Naomi Osaka's only words after her first-round win, to on-court interviewer Fabrice Santoro
Has a tennis player ever created as much noise, without saying a word, as Naomi Osaka has over the last five days in Paris?
After her 6-4, 7-6 (4) win over Patricia Maria Tig in her first-round match on Sunday, it was finally time for the second seed to break her silence. She had announced last week that she wouldn’t do press conferences at Roland Garros this year, but she hadn’t mentioned anything about post-match chats on court.
What did Osaka have to say?
“I’m really glad I won,” she told her interviewer, Fabrice Santoro.
This may not go down as the deepest self-analysis that an athlete has ever performed, but it certainly seemed truthful. When Osaka closed out Tig with a backhand winner on her second match point, she pulled her visor down over her eyes as a wide smile of relief crossed her face.
It hadn’t been easy. Osaka hit 39 winners, won 89 percent of her first-serve points, and never trailed. But she could never quite shake the wiry, wily Romanian, either. Tig, mixing the spins, speeds and heights of her shots, came back from 2-5 to 4-5 in the first set; saved a match point with a forehand winner at 5-6 in the second set; and bounced back from 2-5 to 4-5 again in the tiebreaker. She kept surprising Osaka with tricky slice backhands and risky second serves.
But there were reasons other than her opponent for Osaka to feel extra pressure in this match. At this point in her career, her expectations don’t include losing in the first round at a major event, even when it’s on a surface she doesn’t love, like clay. More important, by announcing that she would forego mandatory press conferences because they can do damage to her mental health, she had focused the world’s attention squarely on her.
But Osaka seems to welcome that attention, and that extra pressure. Her off-court activism isn’t a distraction; instead it motivates her, and gives her a greater purpose when she plays. Two years ago at the US Open, Osaka asked Coco Gauff, the player she had just beaten, to stay on court and do the post-match interview with her, because she wanted to spare the teenager the experience of going back to the locker room alone after a defeat. At last year’s US Open, Osaka took on the weighty responsibility of wearing masks with the names of African-Americans killed by police before and after each match.
Now she wants to bring attention to the mental health of her fellow athletes. Osaka says that reporters’ questions are repetitive and often make her doubt herself, and she wants to negotiate a “compromise” with tournament officials that would presumably loosen the rules about players having to do press conferences when they’re not feeling up to it. As of now, there's a $20,000 fine for skipping one, but Osaka could be risking more at Roland Garros. On Sunday afternoon, the Grand Slams issued this statement:
We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences. As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).
Is Osaka highlighting a legitimate issue, or doing the athletic equivalent of shooting the messenger? It’s true that players hear similar questions from one presser to the next, and Osaka may have dreaded having to talk over and over about her adjustment to clay and grass (she was asked about it by Santoro today, anyway). And it’s true that some questions could be asked more politely. But there are also times when journalists try to find the upside in a player’s losing performance. This is a question that Osaka was asked after her defeat at the Mutua Madrid Open earlier this month:
Q. Does this week in Madrid, the two matches you played, and also just continuing to train, you know, with Wim and you talk on prep and everything, do you come out of this week feeling, you know, positive as you look towards Rome and Roland Garros, feeling like you made some progress or at least have a sense as to what needs to be done before Roland Garros?
Most of the top players were questioned about Osaka’s stance this weekend, and most said they consider pressers to be part of their jobs. Daniil Medvedev reiterated what I’ve observed more than a few times with other players in the past, that a press conference after a loss can be something akin to a therapy session. Other times, of course, talking to the media must feel like a chore, but for players to be able to skip press conferences after big matches or tough losses would only distance fans from the sport and the people who play it more than they already are.
This doesn’t mean we should dismiss Osaka’s concerns. For now, they remain something of a mystery; we won’t know how to judge them until she goes into her more specifics about what she wants to change, or we hear similar stories of mental-health issues from other players. Osaka does things her own way, and she has been successful at whatever she’s tried so far. None of us are in her mind, and many of us have anxieties that other people can find hard to understand. Ideally, she can shed light on the psychological issues that top athletes face, especially in a solo sport, and help them feel like they’re a little less alone in going through them.
Hopefully, Osaka will tell us more soon. The most unfortunate aspect of the situation right now is that we’ve not getting to hear from her. Despite her relative shyness, she’s great at the press conferences she apparently doesn’t like to do—honest, thoughtful, never rote. We’ll see if not doing them helps her play better over the next two weeks. The good news after day one is that we still get to see this four-time Slam champ let her racquet do the talking.