On May 26th, four days prior to the beginning of Roland Garros, Naomi Osaka announced on her Instagram account that she would not be doing press interviews during the tournament. The response to her statement was instantaneous and acrimonious. The fervent cascade of discussion turned the game’s – player, administration and media – pyramid upside down. The ensuing “bashing” was distasteful, filled with spite and decidedly one-sided…which is the reason so much rubble fell on top of the No. 2 women’s player.
Watching the spectacle unfold was like witnessing the lead up to a bar fight. In this case, it was within a sports setting. All the interested parties weighed in and the wordplay exchanges, unfortunately, escalated into a dueling verbal brawl.
Let’s step back and take a look at what took place. The Alphabets – the four Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon [The Championships] and the US Open), along with the Men’s Professional Tennis (ATP Tour), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) – are shrink-wrapped together, despite their regular denials. They want “Control”… Their sole interest is retaining the “Power” they have accumulated. True, members of the factions are not always on the same page in the “How To Do It…” manual, but according to them, what they undertake is in the best interests of the game and at the end of the day, the players.
Lenin said, (long before the former US president thought he invented that hateful phrase), that the media was the enemy of the people. On occasion, it seems that those in the tennis hierarchy must feel the same. Rather than regularly provide story worthy information they selectively dispense details. This turns what should be a winning – spread the word about tennis – doubles strategy into singles contests.
Given the game’s structure today, it was no surprise that those who make their livelihood as tennis scribes were irate with Osaka’s decision. For the most part, she, as the cliché goes – became toast – because she is “so writable…” The fact she wasn’t going to be available to grill, launched pithy onslaughts including – She’s a professional player and she knows the rules; If she has some issues, she should work them out; She should “tough it out…”; She sure wanted to talk to us when we were writing about her Black Lives Matter activities…”
Pillorying an individual that tennis very much needs to carry the sport into the future hasn’t made sense, particularly after the financial catastrophe brought about by the on-going pandemic. Her “tell the truth” candor brought about a good deal of tennis community angst, which may be the reason so many appeared to forget Rebecca Marino the Canadian, who after being repeatedly trashed on social media left the tour for five years. Ashleigh Barty decided to sidestep carrying the constant pressure of living up to expectations and took a swing at becoming a cricketeer. Madison Keys, who has spoken openly about dealing with cyberbullying is another who was overlooked in the “She Has Done Us Wrong…” rush to judgement.
Tennis is a savage sport. Years of toiling on-court can destroy a player physically. Unfortunately, the damage done to an individual’s psyche is rarely discussed. Just as every player has different stroke mechanics, it is critically important to understand that everyone is different inside and out. Handling mental health issues is not a one size fits all kind of fix.
We first watched Osaka at Roland Garros in 2016. It was apparent from the very beginning that she was unique. She radiated it. Though the phrase is over used – she is one-of-a-kind. (Which, actually, everyone is.)
Since she made her first impression on us, she has won four majors and among other things, and she’s been a prominent Social Justice crusader. All the while she has been naively savvy, and in short, very vulnerable.
Following her first match 6-4, 7-6 victory Patricia Maria Tig of Romania, Osaka announced on Instagram June 1st that she was withdrawing from the tournament.
Similar to her courteous bowing to an opponent, she assumed responsibility for what had taken place admitting that she didn’t want to be a detraction from the tournament and she added that maybe she could have explained her motives better.
Osaka became an outcast for not dealing with the press. Yet, what about all the times there have been announcements in media centers that Djokovic or Serena Williams (to name but two…) will have a press conference in 30 minutes and two hours later they still haven’t appeared. And what about the countless mumbled, tortured responses to inane questions that players have offered so often… But They Did Press! As a tennis insider, who is not a journalist, offered – If a writer sees a match, why are the quotes then supposed to write the story?
Outsiders, who have no idea what she is dealing with, have opinions on what she should have done. Just suppose, she had a personality like Allen Iverson, who the year after he was the NBA MVP in 2001, faced the question gauntlet after his Philadelphia 76ers team lost in the playoffs. Responding to a query about his effort in practice, he offered – “Practice?? Practice??” – using the word 22 times. Even better was Rasheed Wallace, who was repeatedly asked about what had happened in a 2003 NBA playoff game, said, “Both teams played well” over and over again. The best, though, was Marshawn Lynch, a Seattle Seahawks running back, who had to appear before the media prior to the 2014 NFL Super Bowl. He answered every question – “I’m just here so I don’t get fined…” Of course, he actually did, and it cost him $50,000. Perhaps Osaka should have used one of these approaches since she was penalized $15,000.
As one writer, one who isn’t a tennis journalist, observed tennis effectively “punked Osaka”. That sure seems to be true. After she explained not being a comfortable public speaker, having anxiety when she is forced to do so; after she admitted being overwhelmed with depression…she was finally forced to use the age old prescription – “Only you can take care of yourself”.
Sadly, the reaction to her Instagram “confession” was as swift as it was to her “no press” statement. For the most part, the response statements were press release wordy and formal. They were not developed with a good deal of thought or more important expressed meaningful feeling. As Christopher Clarey brought out in his New York Times, June 9th story titled, “French Tennis Chief Defends Handling of Naomi Osaka”, Gilles Moretton, President of the Fédération Française de Tennis (FFT) followed the party line – There are rules…
Osaka is an ethnic amalgamation of Haitian, where the man is dominant, and Japanese, where the woman is obsequious. (Now, before readers become upset, we add that this is a generality.) It should be remembered that with Osaka “saving face” is part of her personality. It is a part of who she is and her facing the media, fear of “what could possibly take place…” defines what makes her unique.
More important – She shouldn’t be given a complete absolution for what she did. (And, The Championships, living up to its name, has made it clear that if she decides to play Wimbledon, Osaka will not receive special treatment.) She and her team should have done a better job explaining the problem.
Hopefully if she hasn’t done so already, she will seek professional mental health advice. Though social media is as much a part of today’s day as the sun rising, it may be worthwhile for her, besides taking a break from tournaments, to limit her app use for a while. This would reduce the “trolling” that she has faced. Foremost, she needs to find a way to be content with herself and all that surrounds tennis.
In the end, the game should look forward to the return of a healthy Naomi Osaka. As a rule (tongue in cheek), there are too many regulations in sports that have nothing to do with the sport itself.
In closing, it should be pointed out that on June 3, 2021, Scott Douglas Gerber in an article titled, “Tennis authorities violated law and human decency by forcing Osaka out of the French Open” wrote, “…By law, including French law, an employer is required to reasonably accommodate the mental health issues of employees and potential employees…” Gerber, a law professor at Ohio Northern University, an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project, is a longtime member of the Ohio Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
We wonder what has happened to compassion and empathy that have always seemed to be important components of tennis? Wasn’t that what Naomi Osaka was really asking for?
Title photo by Tennis Australia/David Mariuz