On Monday evening the four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka, the brightest young star across the world of tennis, withdrew from Roland Garros because she felt that her attempts to preserve her mental wellbeing were a distraction to her peers. In other words, it marks a shameful moment for tennis.
Osaka had announced in a statement last week that she would not conduct her press obligations during the tournament, a decision that led to six days of attention and widespread discussion across the internet. While Osaka’s initial announcement and communication was far from perfect, it was bold of her to challenge the system instead of simply accepting the way things should be done and it has led to numerous constructive conversations. Her underlying message was received with a clear lack of empathy from many quarters.
As Osaka noted in both statements, she has a strong rapport with numerous members of the press and her candour has, ironically, always been a strong argument for the value of press conferences. Rather than this being the case of athlete and press clashing, Osaka has demonstrated the unique difficulties of these encounters that often occur during some athletes’ lowest moments and every person reacts differently.
For some players, their thoughts and discomfort in the press room follow them home and it is logical that it can affect their mental health. Osaka is also a black and Asian woman charged with fielding questions to an audience of majority white men, a dynamic that has led to numerous uncomfortable questions over the years.
With their heavy-handed statement, the grand slam tournaments have much for which to answer. They responded to Osaka as if she was a threat, an all-too-familiar sensation for black athletes who step outside of the box. Osaka said she expected to receive fines, as other players have received for skipping press in the past, and she was prepared to pay them and then discuss further solutions after the event. That should have been enough for the time being.
Instead, as the tournament finally began and interest in the story waned, the grand slam tournaments escalated the situation by warning that by repeatedly skipping press conferences she could be defaulted or even risk suspension from future grand slam tournaments. By applying such unnecessary pressure, they forced Osaka to choose between defiance and the possibility of unprecedented punishments or the deep discomfort of facing the media. Withdrawing was the option to minimise her stress. With her departure, she explained that she suffers from depression and is struck by anxiety before press encounters.
The press conference that the French Tennis Federation president, Gilles Moretton, held on Monday night further underlined just how badly the tennis authorities handled this situation. In a statement uttered from the press room his organisation demanded that Osaka enter, he wished Osaka “the quickest possible recovery”, as if depression is an injury that will heal shortly.
After he and his colleagues had postured about the importance of press conferences a day earlier, he left without fielding a single question. Ultimately, their behaviour reflected old institutions that are desperate to maintain control, uninterested in the human cost.
As the fallout from Osaka’s decision to withdraw from Roland Garros continued, her fellow athletes rallied behind her to offer their support. Shortly after her first-round win against Irina Camelia Begu on Monday night, Serena Williams said she empathised with Osaka. “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi,” she said. “I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions. We have different personalities, and people are different.”
Others responded directly to Osaka on social media. The NBA guard Kyrie Irving, who himself has been fined a total of $60,000 for skipping media obligations this season, commented: “We are all with you Queen. Just be you, that will always be enough.” Stephen Curry said: “You shouldn’t ever have to make a decision like this – but so damn impressive taking the high road when the powers that be don’t protect their own. Major respect.”
The events have also led to a discussion about the utility of press conferences. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the British player Laura Robson explained the obstacles that players face during their mandatory post match press conferences: “It can be really difficult and when you’ve come in after a loss and you’re already feeling bad about how you’ve played on court and then you’re reminded it in a question, it’s absolutely not easy so I totally understand why Osaka has had to withdraw for her mental wellbeing.
“At the moment we’re all just hoping that Osaka is OK, that she’s getting the help she needs and just taking her time for herself.”