Naomi Osaka became a dominant force in professional tennis since beating Serena Williams in 2018 before a partisan crowd at the U.S. Open. Earning $37.4 million in the last year alone, she’s currently the highest-paid female athlete globally, with sponsorship money far outweighing the prize money earned at tournaments. At the tournaments, she wins with a big game that overpowers opponents and often delivers clutch shots when she needs them.
Press conferences are an issue
Beneath the steely determination that took her to the pinnacle of professional sports is a 23-year-old woman who has shown vulnerability. In a recent post, she announced that she’d withdrawn from the French Open rather than submit to the traditional post-match press conference at tournaments where outlets from around the world asked questions.
Unlike the on-court interviews that lob a few easy questions to the winner, the press conference after leaving it all on the court can be uncomfortable, emotional and confrontational. Journalists identify and dissect mistakes, prod athletes into giving a telling quote, and venture into subject matter that doesn’t involve tennis.
Athletes are fined for skipping these press conferences, but some will do so from time to time. Osaka has giggled, been contemplative and cried at these encounters. So, calling these encounters outdated, she announced before the French Open that she would forgo them rather than submit. She was fined $15,000 after not doing press after her first-round win and was threatened with suspension.
“Waves of anxiety”
Then she posted that she was withdrawing from the tournament, saying in an Instagram post that she is “not a natural public speaker” and gets “waves of anxiety” before speaking at these events. She added that:
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open of 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that,” and that she often wears headphones during tournaments to “dull my social anxiety.”
Who needs whom?
We often write here about the shifting paradigm in college and professional sports. The NCAA will now begrudgingly lift some of the restrictions on college athletes’ ability to capitalize on their name, image and likeness. Some owners of professional teams have realized that they cannot control athletes’ thoughts and actions without doing real damage to the team brand.
Tennis is a personality-driven sport because it’s a game that involves individual players going head-to-head (or playing the less popular doubles format). In the United States, professional tennis players have traditionally emerged out of the tradition of white privilege symbolized by the tradition-laden Wimbledon tournament and country clubs, but tennis is now a global sport with many non-white stars or others that saw the game as an avenue to economic freedom amidst difficult upbringing.
Playing for change
Following in the footsteps of trailblazers Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and the Williams sisters, Osaka (the daughter of an Afro-Haitian father and Japanese mother) was actively involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. She also used her masks to acknowledge people killed as she marched her way to winning the 2020 U.S. Open. These actions did not hurt her career or her popularity; her Instagram account has millions of followers, and she controls the spin of the message. This puts her in control, and there’s seemingly little that tennis can do but carry on without the game’s biggest young star. In the long run, we can hope that her withdrawal from the Tennis Open starts a real conversation about the mental health of our sports heroes; and if players continue to be required to attend mandatory press conferences, there should also be a conversation about how the tournaments should deal with abusive and inappropriate journalists.