Women’s World No. 2 tennis player Naomi Osaka threw an almighty spanner in the works last week when she announced to the world, and to the French Open, that she would no longer take part in any of the tournament’s press to safeguard her mental health. That single statement has divided the tennis world and led to a $15,000 fine. Here’s everything you need to know.
For what it’s worth, we all know this isn’t brand new information. Post-match interviews across a number of sports have commonly made headlines after an athlete either broke down in it or reacted strongly to a dumb question. There are compilations of these on YouTube, spanning years. This is not new.
Some of the questions can be super obvious – ‘do you think you can beat X’, others can be just straight-up atrocious.
For example, this question directed at women’s World No. 25 Coco Gauff just happened at the French Open.
The question: “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American too. We could have a final between you and Serena. Is it something you hope for? I mean, 22 years separate you girls.”
Oh Christ. pic.twitter.com/X8ZKsPrNv9— José Morgado (@josemorgado) May 28, 2021
So what happened?
Last week, Osaka released a statement announcing she was done with press conferences at Roland-Garros, commonly known as the French Open, which began May 30 and ends June 13.
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka wrote.
“We’re 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.”
Osaka said she has watched many interviews of athletes breaking down in the press room after a loss.
“I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it,” Osaka continued, adding that not doing press isn’t anything personal against the journalist themselves as she has a friendly relationship with most of them.
“However, if the organisations think 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 shrugged off being fined for her refusal to do press, saying that she hopes the money can go towards a mental health charity.
Along with the statement, Osaka shared two clips of athlete interviews. One was of a 14-year-old Venus Williams who was asked over and over again why she believed in herself and her ability to beat an upcoming opponent.
It got to a point where her father Richard Williams interrupted the interview and skewered the journo for planting doubt in the mind of a teenager.
“You’ve got to understand that you’re dealing with [the] image of a 14-year-old child. And this child is gonna be out there playing when your old ass and me are gonna be in the grave,” he said.
Venus praised Osaka’s post on Instagram, commenting: “Girl, do you. Your life is yours to live!”
How did the big tournaments respond to Naomi Osaka?
Following Osaka’s statement, the French Open team said they asked the tennis player to reconsider her stance and “tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being.”
As a result, all four of the major Grand Slams – the Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon, and the US Open – jointly wrote to her to express their concern and to remind her of her media obligations.
“Naomi Osaka today [round 1 of RG] chose not to honour her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H. of the Code of Conduct,” the tournament said in a statement on Sunday.
While the French Open said the mental health of players is “of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams”, it said engaging with the media is a core responsibility of players.
“These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story. The facilitation of media to a broad array of channels, both traditional and digital, is a major contributor to the development and growth of our sport and the fan base of individual players,” the statement read.
The Grand Slams have warned Osaka that if she should continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she will risk exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences, including Grand Slam suspensions.
They added that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their rank, beliefs or achievements.
“As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”
The statement concluded that while the Grand Slams are open to discussing change, “this is only ever achieved through respectful and constructive discussions.”
The statement was signed by all four presidents of the major tournaments.
How has the world reacted to Osaka’s media blackout?
Osaka has been flooded with supportive comments on Instagram from the likes of American golfer Michelle Wie West, artist Nicki Minaj, and poet Amanda Gorman.
However, the tennis world is a bit more ‘yeaaaah, but’.
Women’s World No. 1 Ash Barty said speaking to reporters is “part of the job”, as per the Associated Press.
“We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players… At times press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s also not something that bothers me,” she said.
Men’s World No. 3 and 13-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal said that without the press, “probably we will not be the athletes that we are today.”
He told the AP, “We [aren’t] going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no?”
Men’s World No. 2 Daniil Medvedev said he understands why Osaka cut off the media access.
“I understand why she does it. I respect her opinion,” he said, but added that he personally didn’t have an issue with post-match interviews.
Women’s World No. 20 Johanna Konta told the AP that there is a lot of truth in what Osaka said.
“But then again, there’s also the expectation and the commitments that come with being a professional athlete, as well, and this is one. So it’s about finding … the right balance.”
Tennis great Billie Jean King said she felt torn by Osaka’s decision.
“While it’s important that everyone has the right to speak their truth, I have always believed that as a professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media,” King wrote.
However she acknowledged that the media of her time is extremely different to today’s, plus social media.
My thoughts on Naomi Osaka’s decision not to speak with the press at Roland-Garros. pic.twitter.com/BzvHDU3DQY— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) May 30, 2021
What’s the go with Naomi’s sister?
You may have seen that Naomi’s older sister Mari posted a statement on Reddit defending her sister. She has since removed it though after copping a huge amount of backlash for it.
Mari explained that her sister has always been told that she’s “bad at clay”, the surface of the French Open. She was continually told this from family and journalists, and it started to really affect her mentally.
“In order to do well and have a shot at winning Roland Garros she will have to believe that she can [play clay],” Mari wrote.
“So her solution was to block everything out. No talking to people who is going to put doubt in her mind. She’s protecting her mind hence why it’s called mental health.”
Confirmed with Naomi Osaka’s team that this Reddit post is indeed from her older sister, Mari Osaka. Gives unique insight amid Naomi’s silence.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) May 30, 2021
(Worth noting, probably, that Osaka did not do press after her loss in Rome to Pegula, from what I’ve heard, as she wasn’t requested.) pic.twitter.com/VtYT57bOYS
In the more recent statement, Mari wrote: “Okay so I fucked up. My words are coming across so horribly to a lot of people who think taking care of mental health is strategic.”
“I didn’t empathise the fact that Naomi is dealing with a ton of shit and honestly fighting for the care of mental health in my post so now a lot of people are taking it as ‘She doesn’t want to hear criticism.'”
Mari concluded: “I’m sorry Naomi I probably made the situation worse.”
Make of that what you will, but you can absolutely guarantee the wider media jumped on this one.
What now then?
I really don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see if Osaka continues to skip her post-match interviews and if she does, what that means, re: fines. Or maybe this will actually facilitate conversations around the relationship between media and athletes.
At the very least, I hope this will open up a discourse that goes beyond “but it’s part of the job”. Just because it is doesn’t mean the conversation ends there.
Naomi Osaka has the ability to risk fines and defy tradition to make a point. But what about the lesser known athletes? The ones who think being belittled or having their confidence questioned is part of the norm, when really, should it be?