Global Affairs

French Open: Will Naomi Osaka’s decision not to speak to media prompt change?

Naomi Osaka says expecting players to answer questions after a defeat amounts to “kicking a person while they’re down”

If anyone was going to challenge the system, it was Naomi Osaka.

Her move has been applauded by athletes in tennis and beyond, as the once shy 23-year-old has again sought to use her platform to prompt discussion and push for change.

Some tennis officials have been less supportive: she faces huge fines – up to $20,000 (£14,160) per news conference – for failing to carry out the media commitments that are in the Grand Slam rule book – but the very fact she can afford to pay them means she is among the best placed players to take a stand.

In response to Osaka, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said the players “have a responsibility to their sport and their fans” to speak to the media during competitions.

The general consensus among Osaka’s fellow professionals, who have been speaking at Roland Garros on Friday, is one of respect for her stance but believing the media obligations are “part of the job”.

But will her move change anything – and what might the effects of her media silence be?

Time to look at athletes’ media obligations?

“If the organisations think that they can just keep saying ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centrepiece of their cooperation, then I just gotta laugh,” Osaka said.

The WTA, which governs the women’s tour, said mental health is of “utmost importance”, adding it had a “system in place” to provide support to players.

It added: “The WTA welcomes a dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches that can help support an athlete as they manage any concerns related to mental health, while also allowing us to deliver upon our responsibilities to the fans and public.

“Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.”

Serena Williams left her Australian Open news conference in tears after her semi-final defeat by Osaka in February, while Britain’s Johanna Konta was frustrated by questions challenging her big-point mentality after a Wimbledon quarter-final defeat in 2019.

British player and BBC Radio 5 Live pundit Naomi Broady thinks it could be time to look at changing the rule that says players must speak to the media within 30 minutes after their match.

“If it was just more time after that big loss, so that you can compose yourself and digest and cry out of the spotlight,” she said.

“It’s difficult because it is also your opportunity to show your passion and your personality, but if it’s on an occasion when you are so upset it’s difficult that you’re almost forced by the rules to do it so quickly.”

So far, the response from senior officials indicates there may not be appetite for change. “I think this is a phenomenal mistake,” said French Tennis Federation (FFT) president Gilles Moretton.

“It shows to what extent today [the need] that there is strong governance in tennis.

“What is happening there is, in my opinion, not acceptable. We will stick to the laws and rules for penalties and fines.”

French Open tournament director Guy Forget also told the French paper Osaka’s decision “doesn’t send a very positive message”.

Or a different type of news conference?

Broady remembers the exact time when her own attitude towards the media changed.

After a late-night Australian Open defeat she was ushered quickly into the media room. There were just two journalists there as it was gone midnight, and after one of them started asking questions she burst into tears. She says the reporter was “really sweet” and “apologetic” that he had upset her, and the other said to her “you know, what, let’s just do this tomorrow”.

“And it was literally from that moment that I changed my opinion about people in the media because until that point you almost don’t see a softer side to them because they are trying to get their questions out,” she said.

News conferences will continue – as British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith pointed out in a lengthy message of support for Osaka: “We need a free press that ask us valid questions and has the freedom to challenge us.”

And of course there is the financial side too, with Broady saying media is “a huge part of the sport, it’s a huge part of where we get our revenue – from TV rights.

“If the fans don’t get to see that side of things then maybe less of them will tune in and that will have a knock-on effect on our purse at the end of the day. It would affect how much the tournaments could sell themselves for if the players didn’t do media and such.

“But maybe the rules need to be looked at to be more empathetic towards the players and the athletes.”

What do Osaka’s fellow players think?

Novak Djokovic, the men’s world number one: “I understand the press conferences sometimes can be very unpleasant, and it’s not something you enjoy always – especially if you lose a match.

“But it is part of the sport and part of your life on the tour, and this is something we will have to do, otherwise we will get fined.

“I think the topic of the mental well-being is probably underestimated on the tour, especially in the last 15 months with this virus. I think we do need to talk about that a little bit more and understand what we have to do collectively to make players feel better.”

Iga Swiatek, the reigning French Open women’s champion: “Talking to press after a loss, is not the most enjoyable thing to do.

“It may be hard, but I feel like with proper kind of support and, with distance and balance, it’s part of the job.

“I feel that media is really important as well because they are giving us a platform to talk about our lives and our perspective.

“It’s also important because not everybody is a professional athlete and not everybody knows what we are dealing with on court. It’s good to speak about that.”

Ashleigh Barty, the women’s number one: “Press is kind of part of the job. We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players. I can’t really comment on what Naomi is feeling or the decisions she makes.

“At times press conferences are hard of course but it’s also not something that bothers me. I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest. It’s not something that’s ever fazed me too much.”

Rafael Nadal, 13-time French Open men’s champion: “I respect her decision. I respect her, of course, as an athlete and her personality.

“For me, without the press and without the people who write the news and the achievements that we are having around the world, we would probably not be the athletes that we are today. I don’t think we would have the recognition that we have around the world and we would not be that popular.

“I understand her. But, on the other hand, I have my point of view that the media is a very important part of our sport, too.”

Has Osaka bought herself an advantage in Paris?

It will be interesting to see how Osaka, who has never gone beyond the third round at Roland Garros, gets on without the pressure of media commitments in Paris over the next fortnight.

In her post she says players are often asked questions “that bring doubt into our minds” and that she is not prepared to subject herself to people who doubt her.

Asher-Smith, meanwhile, spoke of reporters who “try to find, and at times create, cracks in your psychology”.

Broady agreed, saying: “When you work so hard with a psychologist to get yourself in a certain state and to think in a certain way, going into a media room is then almost a test of that psychology.

“You’ve been gearing yourself up to think positively and it’s the media’s job to sometimes ask the difficult questions, which are sometimes the points that you’ve been trying not to focus on yourself.

“Is she [Osaka] gaining an advantage because she doesn’t have to deal with press this week because she can afford it?”

And if this approach works for her, how many other players might be tempted to follow suit?

“If she does well this week having done that, then will other players then take her lead and do the same thing for Wimbledon?” Broady asked.

Analysis

BBC tennis correspondent Russell Fuller

On reading Naomi Osaka’s post, my mind went back immediately to the media conference she gave after losing in the first round at Wimbledon in 2019.

She arrived as the reigning US Open and Australian Open champion, only to lose in straight sets to Yulia Putintseva.

About four minutes into the conference, I asked Osaka whether it had been hard to adjust to becoming a major star in such a short space of time. She turned to the moderator to say she felt she was about to cry, and left the room quietly.

I have just watched those four minutes back. All of the questions were sensitively phrased, and my feeling on this occasion was that everyone in the room was fully aware how difficult an experience this was for a 21-year-old.

Grand Slam defeats can be brutal. And, in tennis, there is no middle-aged manager to explain things away – the responsibility has traditionally fallen to the player.

Maybe that should be looked at – and we all need to be extremely mindful of our tone.

But we must absolutely retain the right to ask the difficult questions. The sport needs the publicity, and for the sake of long-term credibility, players should not be allowed to interact with fans purely through their own social media channels.

Around the BBC - SoundsAround the BBC footer - Sounds

Related Articles

Back to top button