Tennis star Naomi Osaka caused a stir in the tennis and sports world, pulling out of the French Open. Osaka, ranked number two in the world, was fined $15,000 for not doing the obligatory post-match press conference. Later, the four grand slams winner withdrew from the tournament citing mental health issues.
At the outset, let’s wish Osaka well and let’s hope she recovers soon and returns right back on the courts. After all, at 23, she is a rising star and tennis needs such players.
The contractual rules clearly spell out that post-match press conferences are mandatory. Every player who signs the contract is aware of this and has to abide by the rules, no exceptions.
However, after her first match win, Osaka chose not to do the press conference. Clearly, it was a violation of the contract, inviting a penalty from the organisers and potential disqualification from grand slams if she boycotted press conferences.
It all comes down to the tournament rules. Osaka signed the contract and hence is obligated to honour it. No one is more equal than others. It is as simple as that.
Unfortunately, what was an avoidable matter got needlessly complicated with Osaka and her team mishandling it. Instead of putting out her message on Twitter, she could have had a conversation with the game’s power brokers and sought a solution. But that was not to be. Later, the organisers contacted her to reconsider her position but their efforts proved unsuccessful. The news, predictably, went viral among tennis and sports fans. Players, pundits and the media jumped in to have their say. Clearly, opinion remains divided with some praising her for her bold move, others lambasting her for trying to circumvent rules.
Osaka, via a Twitter post, explained that post-match press conferences were detrimental to her mental health and equated them to “kicking people when they’re down.” She also revealed that she had been struggling with her mental health issues since 2018 after her controversial victory over Serena Williams in the US Open finals.
Now that Osaka has openly admitted she suffers from mental health issues, she needs to get help so that she can recover and be mentally fit to continue playing professional tennis. As British columnist and broadcaster Piers Morgan said, “you can’t use mental health as an excuse not to face difficult questions from the media.” Stress, anxiety or depression are part of everyday life and everyone, celebrities and commoners, need to deal with it.
Professional tennis is a high-profile, extremely demanding and high pressure sport that is in the public eye with the media watching players closely. It is also a tough entertainment business bringing in millions of dollars. Sponsors promote their products through the sportspersons paying big money and want returns on their investments. This being the case, professional sports persons have to be mentally and physically strong to play at this level and develop a thick skin to face criticism. In professional tennis, you not only have to play in front of thousands of spectators but also face the media after a match as it is part of the player’s job.
Sportsmen and women are promoted by the media through print, television, radio and online platforms that reach out to millions of people. This was acknowledged by none other than tennis supremo Rafael Nadal in his comments on the Osaka controversy. “The press made us the athletes we are,” Nadal said.
Ashleigh Barty, world number one female player said: “We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players.”
Some are of the view that the post-match press conferences are pointless, boring and at times controversial and can be dispensed with. Others opine that it should be optional because some players are introverted or poor public speakers unable to face questions from journalists.
Post-match press conferences have been a tradition and the contract clearly spells that out. Besides, while reporters covering a match write their reports based largely on being witnesses to the match, players always provide some insight and colour to the story that can emerge only by personal interaction. Pressers shed insight into the mind of players and help gain a perspective of a match or moment.
It is unfortunate that things turned out badly for one of the world’s top tennis players. Let us hope Osaka sorts out her problems and returns soon to the courts, stronger and better. Wimbledon is round the corner, followed by the Olympics in Japan (Osaka’s birthplace) where the home crowd is looking forward to seeing her in action if the games take place.
Finally, it remains to be seen whether Osaka’s action for social change to make things better will have any lasting impact on the sport or not.