Naomi Osaka’s decision to pull out of the French Open has started much needed conversations about athletes and mental health. It was so important to her that she was willing to forego a potential $1.8 million prize money to put her peace first. This isn’t the act of a so-called diva, or just someone in a bigotry game with the WTA’s media obligations.
This is the French Open. For each year as one of four Grand Slam players, Osaka showed what it was worth to him, the career total would be a defining number. She’ll be well aware of how much a Major can mean, seeing as Serena Williams stalls at 23, when Margaret Court’s record is 24 career slam event victories.
So this is not something Osaka takes lightly, and mental health is an issue of importance beyond the sports world. But it is being projected as Osaka v. Press, and it is a framework that does not do justice to the issue.
In the wake of Osaka’s announcement, the idea of press conferences and access has been further criticized by many journalists, including some journalists. It’s not a perfect method, but the free line of inquiry your average post-game offers is what makes the game so appealing. It’s not scripted or manicured, and it leads to moments both provocative and hilarious.
Those biological moments can have a big impact. think about time Andy Murray was asked about Sam Querrey in 2017 He is the first American player to reach a Grand Slam semi-final since 2009.
“Male players,” replied Murray, resetting the default gender in tennis media.
Before withdrawing from the French Open, Osaka first refused to hold the mandatory press conference, which once again puts that conversation in the spotlight. But in reality there are many pressing parts of an athlete’s needs. In some ways, the press conference is an easy scapegoat.
When the pandemic first began in late winter 2020, all major sports leagues came together for a mitigation effort – leaving journalists out of the locker room. It was one of the few things they came together for in the coming year.
Shockingly, keeping journalists out of the locker room did not end the pandemic.
Osaka was 23 when the women who made tennis so popular had to agitate for coverage from the sports media in the 1970s. That coverage helped make tennis, without exception, the most attractive sport for women. Osaka Made Estimated $55 million last year Partly because of the exhausting work of his predecessors on the podium.
Or as Billie Jean King put it this week: “In our days, without the press, no one would know who we are or what we think. There is no doubt that they developed our game into what it is today.” helped to develop and
At the time, it was because Grand Slam events were co-ed that the press was already meant for men, so they could pay even cursory attention to women. And now the WTA enjoys a level of coverage that is envied by the WNBA, NWSL and LPGA.
Women are less prone to error than men’s games. American press coverage is often personality-driven, nationalistic or chasing an elite athlete. Think of the press that the LPGA got in the era of Annika Sorenstam, when she was winning majors and playing in PGA Tour events. Now name two women in the top 10.
This also happened on the PGA Tour when Tiger Woods was not playing, No Woods meant golf had a very low profile. Individual games by their very nature put a lot of pressure on players who don’t have the advantage of teammates to take some of the heat, or pat their backs.
When the press isn’t covering marquee players, they aren’t covering reporter ups and comers. I remember Osaka’s pre-tournament presser at the 2018 Wimbledon. She was oblivious, and more than a few like me were stoked to listen to her on the day Serena Williams did. Reporters were just getting to know her, and she was so deftly funny and authentic that day. A champion with a platform doesn’t lack coverage, but it’s the players after that who do.
I haven’t been to all the press conferences in Osaka, but the ones I’ve attended have almost been inspired. Reporters have been curious and respectful of him, he’s not a tough player to like. People in the defamatory media are just people, and Osaka has won many, just like she won over fans. Tennis media is also, at least in the US, more gender balanced than most other sports.
Osaka has used the resulting platform to give the tennis community a look at how the Black Lives Matters movement means to them as well. He also got the Western and Southern Open to delay the semi-finals after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin last summer.
It is bigger than a press conference.
Athletes are often not allowed to do something that is more important to them than the sport. Osaka makes an important point by drawing those red lines for herself. But because it is something that affects him, it does not mean that access to the press should be cut off, or demonized.
You would have expected that negotiations about what adjustments could be made between Osaka and the WTA would have taken place before the French began. It certainly would have been helpful if French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moreton, who fined Osaka for not taking questions from the press, had actually taken questions from the press instead of reading a statement.
The press is often a convenient foil, but we can respect Osaka’s concern for her peace of mind without blaming the messenger. It may just be a story where we can assign a hero without telling a villain.
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