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Naomi Osaka serves up a challenge to tennis

Naomi Osaka serves up a challenge to tennis

The argument between tennis star Naomi Osaka and the tennis authorities is about much more than post-match press conferences


transcript

Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, what Naomi Osaka’s dramatic departure from one of tennis’s biggest tournaments tells us about the changing relationship between athletes and the press.

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“Naomi Osaka, the number two ranked player in the world, has just withdrawn from the French Open. Osaka had been fined $15,000 for refusing to do the traditional post-match news conferences, citing her mental health.”

News report

Naomi Osaka, the soft-spoken 23-year-old, is among the world’s most famous sports stars.

Born to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Naomi Osaka has won four Grand Slam championships. 

“Game, set and match, Osaka.”

US Open 2018 Final commentary

She was the first Asian tennis player ever to reach world number one.

But this time she’s made headlines off the court. 

First she said she would no longer take part in press conferences at the French Open, which is happening right now in Paris.

And then, on Monday, she quit the tournament altogether, saying she needed to protect her mental health.

Some people are angry about her decision. Others are pretty sympathetic. And plenty more just don’t know what they think.

So what do sports stars owe the media?

“For me I have a lot of regrets before I go to sleep, and most of the regret is that I don’t speak out about what I’m thinking.”

Naomi Osaka CNN interview

That was Naomi Osaka speaking last year.

Her first big statement was in last year’s US Open.

She walked onto court wearing masks bearing the names of Black Americans killed at the hands of police.

And in this past week came her second big statement: that she should be allowed more control over her relationship with the media.

She suggested some of the journalists involved in press conferences didn’t care much about athletes’ mental health.

She received a lot of support from people outside the sport, but inside the sport the reaction was mixed. 

Players like Rafael Nadal expressed sympathy, but in a pretty qualified way.

“I understand her, but on the other hand for me, without the press, without the people who… writing the news or achievements that we are having around the world, we will not be the athletes that we are today.”

Rafael Nadal press conference

And the organisers of the four Grand Slam tournaments threw the book at her.

Referencing her media obligations, they fined her $15,000 and threatened to kick her out of the French Open, and possibly even other Grand Slams. 

A day after that, Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open altogether.

And she did so with a second statement.

She wrote that she gets really anxious before she speaks to the media. 

She also referenced one particular tournament. She said that since that tournament she’d suffered from long periods of depression.

The tournament was the 2018 US Open.

The 2018 US Open was extraordinary.

Naomi Osaka was in her first big final and she was facing up against the sporting titan, Serena Williams.

She won the match – her first Grand Slam victory – but that only tells a fraction of the story.

Serena Williams got really angry with the umpire.

“You stole a point from me. You’re a thief too… There are men out here who do a lot worse. But because I’m a woman you’re going to take this away from me?”

Serena Williams during the 2018 US Open Final

Serena Williams lost, and the New York crowd were pretty furious at how she’d been treated.

Even during the trophy presentation for Naomi Osaka, the crowd were booing relentlessly. 

And she started to cry.

“I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I’m sorry it had to end like this…”

Naomi Osaka during the 2018 US Open Final trophy presentation

It’s no wonder Naomi Osaka was upset.

Naomi’s father started coaching her after watching Venus and Serena Williams at the French Open back in 1999.

She idolised Serena Williams so much she once wrote a report about her when she was a kid.

It’s not the way you want to beat your idol.

And after that trophy presentation – after all those emotions – Naomi Osaka had to do a press conference, where, again, she was reduced to tears.

“When I step onto the court, I feel like a different person I’m not a Serena fan. I’m just a tennis player playing another tennis player. But then when I hugged her at the net…”

Naomi Osaka 2018 US Open Final press conference

So what did this moment tell us about the post-match press conference? 

That moment – Naomi Osaka reduced to tears – told us about the currency that the post-match press conference deals in: emotions.

Anger, joy, distress, frustration.

And you can see why it can be hard for players.

Half the time, a player who has just lost has to unpick their defeat immediately after.

The problem is: there’s often not much to say. 

Trying to push for explanations, where there aren’t any easy ones, can just come across as cruel.

“I’m just asking you as someone who presumably wants to go on from here, learn from this, and win a Grand Slam one day. Is it not something that you nee–”

“Please don’t patronise me.”

“I’m not patronising me, I–”
“You are. In the way that you’re asking your question, you are being quite disrespectful and you are patronising me. I’m a professional competitor who did her best today.”

Johanna Konta speaking to journalist

And Naomi Osaka trying to wrestle control away from the press conferences speaks to something bigger.

Players like her – she has more than two million followers on Instagram – frankly don’t need press conferences to tell people what they think. 

And by extension, fans don’t really need them either.

In practical terms, they are not much more than a bit of theatre, a relic of how access to sporting stars used to work.

And that’s why Grand Slam organisers were so angry at Naomi Osaka. 

Because what the post-match press conference does is represent institutional power. 

Players answer questions with a billboard of sponsors behind them, and it’s part of the spectacle. 

The problem for institutions is that this power is fragile.

What athletes from Naomi Osaka to Colin Kaepernick to Marcus Rashford have done over the past few years is define themselves outside of institutional power. 

But then there’s the flip-side. 

In 2020, Naomi Osaka became the highest paid female athlete of all time. 

She’d earned a staggering $34 million in endorsements, and that doesn’t always happen on the court. 

Exposure in the media – being one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world, one of Sports Illustrated’s sportspersons of the year – definitely helps.

But that’s different to the very particular set-up of the  press conference. It’s clear that athletes like Naomi Osaka are done with them… the question is… is everyone else, too?

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood

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