TENNIS champion and current world number two Naomi Osaka declared before the French Open that she would not be taking any questions after her games.

Osaka, 23, a four-time grand slam champion, expressed concern as to the impact the interviews may have upon her mental state.

Osaka is yet to win at Roland Garros which starts on the 30th May.

She is attempting to protect herself from the intensity and severity of the media interviews, believing they are akin to “kicking a person when they are down” after a defeat.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka said.

“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.”

“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.

Osaka explained that her decision was “nothing personal” against the tournament and that she hopes the “considerable” fine she expects to receive will go to a mental health charity.

Grand Slam rules state players can be fined up to $20,000 (£14,160) for failing to meet their media obligations.

Osaka’s stance has been met with mixed reviews by other tennis players and athletes in general.

Some have questioned her mental toughness and ability to handle what is accepted as a routine part of a post-match ritual.

British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith said it was “so correct” and that while there are “a lot of excellent journalists that are doing an amazing job” there are some who “try to find, and at times, create cracks in your psychology”.

“Some try to ignite a storm by using your name on a random topic and it’s not OK,” she added.

“Who stands up for the athletes’ mental health in these situations?

“It’s anxiety inducing when you sit there and have to constantly quietly pray that you’ve left no room for ambiguity with the answer you’ve just given, just in case someone decides to take it out of context and portray it differently for ‘clickbait’ – which could obviously cause huge damage to your reputation and career.”

Former doubles Australian player Renae Stubbs turned commentator, said “This move from Naomi is really an amazing moment for the media to LISTEN to these players and understand how tough it is for many of them and to do better and get better!”

American former Wimbledon finalist Zina Garrison said: “She will be able to pay for the fine, most athletes can’t. Love you are bringing awareness to mental health in sports. Come together with all sides and work on a solution now.”

The post-match interview can be an extraordinary piece of television.

To front up to a barrage of questions, some inane, some insensitive, rarely appropriate after the raw emotion of a devastating loss can be incredibly difficult.

Whether the loss is close or not, whether the player played well or not. Any abruptness or indifference is seized upon as bad sportsmanship, belligerence, childishness.

As if the media throng have a right to interrogate a player and subject them to psychological torture.

Death by a thousand cuts.

Some journalists will at least attempt some form of respect and civility.

After publishing her post, Osaka tweeted a video of former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch repeating the line “I’m just here so I won’t get fined”, at a pre-Super Bowl news conference in 2015.

This attitude has been mirrored by Australian tennis bad boys Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic, leading to fierce criticism of their behaviour.

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.

Konta opined she felt “picked on” and that the questioning was “disrespectful and patronising”.

Osaka’s stance will no doubt send ripples through her relationships with her horde of fans who have become accustomed to her eccentricities. As have her sponsors.

Car manufacturer Nissan and All Nippon Airways have declined to comment, while Japanese instant noodle-maker Nissin said in a statement: “As a sponsor, we respect the feelings and

will of the athletes. However, we are not in a position to comment on their individual opinions and actions, so we will refrain from doing so.”

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 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.”

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 added Osaka’s decision “doesn’t send a very positive message”.

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”.

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.”

There are also possible financial consequences of Osaka’s position, should it catch on. It may lead to diminishing viewers, some who are intrigued by the unravelling of a hero before their collective eyes.

Diminishing return from any media rights would be a major concern for the sport.

The views of her fellow tennis professionals have largely been empathetic:

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.”

Johanna Konta, British number one: “I don’t necessarily disagree with what she said, I think there’s a lot of truth in what she said. Then again, there are also the expectations and the commitments that come with being a professional athlete and this is one of them.

“I personally think it is about finding the right balance. Don’t get me wrong, [journalists] have asked me some tricky questions in the past that haven’t exactly made me feel incredibly good about myself. But it’s also up to me about how I digest things, how personally I take them in. I always try to take them with a pinch of salt.”

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.

The question that inevitably arises is whether Osaka is gaining a psychological advantage by not submitting to the ritual of post-game interviews.

In all likelihood, yes. Or else she would not be adopting the position and risking fines. Whether this translates to on court success, only time will tell.

Is this fair and equitable if all other competitors are compelled by the rules to do so?

Or do they also have a choice, but are not in a financial position to absorb the penalties?

Osaka earned a staggering $55.2 million in the past 12 months, a record for a female athlete.

What would happen if all the players, en masse in a collective boycott citing mental health, stopped the interviews altogether.

Not only in tennis, but in the entire world of sport. Whose needs come first, the athlete, the fan, the organisation, or the media empires?

It appears that more research is needed into the psychological aspects of the player and their relationship with their sport and the role of the media.

 

Image via The Essence

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