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Naomi Osaka vs. The Press
Empowerment, or entitlement? Like most everything, it depends who you ask.
Published May 31, 2021
WATCH: Tennis Channel Live on Naomi Osaka's decision to opt out of press conferences at Roland Garros
Is Naomi Osaka’s decision to disregard her professional obligation to meet with journalists after tournament matches a bold act of self-empowerment by a woman concerned with mental health issues, or a startling display of entitlement?
It’s an intriguing question, and how you feel about it may reflect your generational bias. Many boomers—a generation that still comprises the game’s core audience—might roll their eyes, marveling at Osaka’s cheek. Osaka’s Gen Z cohort is more likely to see this as the Japanese star’s demand for a safe space, a desire to insulate herself from journalists whose questions—many of which are ritually introduced with cordial, even fawning, declarations of respect—are challenging, endlessly repeated micro-aggressions.
Osaka’s stroke may be a bit of both. As she wrote on Twitter:
It’s perilous, in this era of acute sensitivities, to question someone’s definition of mental health. While players have often expressed complaints about the hounds of the fourth estate, none have suggested that reporters threaten their psychic well-being. That includes Petra Kvitova, who, having survived a horrific home invasion and knife attack late in 2016, dreaded having to tell her story when she returned to the tour some seven months later.
If Osaka dislikes having to answer the same questions about her struggles on clay, or her social activism, imagine how Kvitova felt having to reprise the gory details of her traumatic incident, with probing reporters at every whistle stop on the tour.
“I thought it would be probably just once to talk about it,” the Czech star said in Paris on Saturday, while preparing for Roland Garros. “But of course many times I did (tell the story again) afterwards.”
Ash Barty, the WTA’s No. 1 player, knows a thing or two about mental health. A former prodigy who played on the tour at 15, Barty (now 25) tired of the pressure and grind, and left tennis for 18 months not long after she turned 18. She has enjoyed a spectacular resurgence.
“At times, press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s also not something that bothers me,” Barty said on Friday in Paris. “I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest with you guys.”
Not everyone is as pliant and grounded as Barty. Osaka certainly seems complicated, introspective, perhaps even fragile. But her stance is puzzling because she has always been popular with the media. Unlike iconoclasts Nick Kyrgios or Bernard Tomic (incensed by Tomic’s occasional failure of effort, one press wag dubbed the Aussie “Tomic the Tank Engine”), Osaka was warmly embraced from the start as a charming exception to the brigade of one-note baseliners that have dominated the WTA. She achieved massive cultural relevance due to her poignant actions during the Black Lives Matter summer of 2020.
There are simple answers to why Osaka’s complaints don’t clear the bar when it comes to justifying such a significant decision. Repetitive questions may be an annoyance, but that’s all they are—a small price to pay for the rewards of being an elite player. Also, it isn’t the fault of those asking such questions if they trigger “doubt” in Osaka’s mind.
There’s another possibility here: this retreat from engagement with the press—the only real area in this social media age where Osaka can’t fully control the message—is driven by as yet undivulged factors. If that’s the case, she could say so, even if she declines to offer explanations.
Some may praise Osaka for the element of protest in her stance. She’s bucking the (tennis) system, ostensibly striking a blow against dehumanizing elements of her profession. There’s no doubt that player-media dynamic has become industrialized over the years—a far cry from the day when a press conference meant one or two journalists following a player back to the locker room and sitting around, chatting while he slipped into street clothes.
Meetings with the press have become a compulsory exercise, often featuring brisk transactions in cliché and a by-rote flavor. They can seem phony, or anodyne. It isn’t inappropriate to ask why individuals who seek to avoid the press shouldn’t be allowed to do so. File it under the general heading, “it’s a free country.”
But it’s also imperative to understand that even in said “free country,” being a celebrity-athlete has always been transactional. There are clearly spelled-out responsibilities attached to the rewards you reap. You can’t demand the privacy enjoyed by an unpublished poet while appearing in endless media configurations while becoming the world’s highest-paid female athlete.
Osaka certainly seems complicated, introspective, perhaps even fragile. But her stance is puzzling because she has always been popular with the media.
Osaka’s peers predominantly issued the familiar “I respect her decision” caveats before they uniformly went on to agree that doing press, even after painful losses, is part of the tennis pro’s job—an important component of “growing the game.” In an email, Billie Jean King told the New York Times that “everyone has a right to speak their own truth.” Then she immediately laid out her belief that tennis players have a “responsibility” to make themselves available to the media.
“It's hard coming in press straight after a match and when you feel crap,” Heather Watson said at Roland Garros on Friday. “I've broken down a few times crying. As you all know, I'm pretty emotional. It sucks, but I do think it's really important to speak to the press.”
The press can be irritating, intrusive, silly and insensitive. Some tabloid reporters can even be malicious. But by and large, the players are inured to that, and understand that the press is interested in good stories, and those usually require a peek behind the curtain of a player’s mind. Many players admit that they actually enjoy their interactions with the media.
“Talking about journalists, I have no problem,” ATP No. 2 Daniil Medvedev remarked in Paris. “I try always to come to press conference, bad mood or good mood. And I feel like even sometimes in the bad mood I can be in a better mood after talking to you guys.”