Naomi Osaka Takes a Complicated Stand

Tuesday - 01/06/2021 14:10
Her withdrawal from the French Open has already shifted an ongoing debate about athletes, mental health, and the press.

After Naomi Osaka hit a backhand winner on match point to defeat Patricia Maria Țig in the first round of the French Open, on Sunday, she smiled as she lowered her head, and then tugged her gray visor down. These were familiar gestures; I’ve seen her half-hide her smile countless times. The following day, after she announced that she would be withdrawing from the French Open for the sake of “the tournament, the other players and my wellbeing,” five tumultuous days after announcing that she would not be speaking to the press during the tournament, my mind went to that moment, the last time that I had watched her. Then I thought of the first time I’d watched Osaka pull her visor over her eyes.

It happened in 2018, during the U.S. Open trophy presentation, after a match marred by controversy surrounding a confrontation between Serena Williams and the umpire. The crowd, which had been on Williams’s side, booed as Osaka was named the champion. Osaka cried, and tried to hide her face. She was twenty years old then, already launched into a life that everyone could see and that no one could possibly imagine. Over the next three years, Osaka won three more Grand Slams, and the publicity surrounding her career and her life grew even more intense. Her image was on the cover of Vogue and on billboards towering over Los Angeles and Tokyo. She became an icon, and she did iconic things. She helped design sneakers for Nike, a salad for Sweetgreen. In May, Sportico estimated that she had earned more than fifty million dollars during the previous year, which made her the highest-paid female athlete in history, breaking her own record. A recent Times feature about her ran under the headline “How Naomi Osaka Became Everyone’s Favorite Spokesmodel.”

She was famous only partly because she was so good at tennis. It mattered also that she was young, that she was Japanese and American, Black and Asian. It mattered that she spoke about her values and seemed to live by them. It also mattered that she was very good with the press—eloquent about social issues, smart about the game, disarmingly funny about the rest. Most of these exchanges have come in press conferences. (She occasionally gives other interviews, some of them to a Japanese broadcasting company called Wowow, which sponsors her.) Press conferences, as a rule, are tedious and outdated. Nobody really likes them—not reporters, who would prefer to speak to athletes privately and at length, and not players, who are asked the same questions repeatedly, sometimes by people whose main motivation is to encourage controversy. Press conferences can seem particularly pointless to players who don’t need the press to promote themselves or reach their fans, which they can do more efficiently, and perhaps more effectively, through social media. The press, particularly at the Grand Slams, can include people who are not well versed in tennis; tabloid reporters; and, not infrequently, people who ask ham-handed and offensive questions, particularly of Black women. Just the other day, a reporter who wanted to get a quote from the seventeen-year-old star Coco Gauff about the possibility of playing Serena Williams began by saying, “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American, too.”

Press conferences also typically offer reporters their only chance to ask players questions on any subject, including difficult ones. Without press conferences, it seems quite possible that Alexander Zverev would not have been asked about the allegations of domestic violence against him. Without press conferences, reporters might get to talk to players only under terms established by the brands that sponsor them, or in exchanges that are heavily mediated by layers of managers and agents. And, for all of their obvious problems and weaknesses, press conferences do sometimes yield original insights into both the technical aspects of matches and the people who play them. That often seemed particularly true when Osaka walked into the room—until she declared that she would stay out.

When Osaka first announced that she would not speak to the press during the French Open, she explained that her experience with press conferences had led her to the conclusion that many people have no regard for the mental health of athletes, and that this needed to change. “If the organizations 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 centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh,” she wrote. She also spoke of wanting to avoid having “doubt” seeded in her mind—“I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” she wrote—leading some to wonder whether she was trying to insulate herself from negativity in order to maintain her focus. A bad loss at the Miami Open had snapped a long winning streak, and Osaka had then been upset in both Madrid and Rome; on Reddit, her older sister, Mari, in a post she later deleted, suggested that Osaka simply didn’t want to be distracted or have her self-confidence damaged. Osaka’s statement was fairly general, and people interpreted it according to their own assumptions about what was really going on. To some, Osaka was speaking her truth about an oppressive system. To others, she was refusing to accept the responsibilities that come with a lucrative career. Her fellow-players, almost to a person, took a more nuanced view: when asked about her stance, they said that they respected Osaka but understood the need for exposure, and that talking to the press was part of their job.

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It is not, in fact, unusual for players to skip press conferences—particularly players who can afford to pay the resulting fines. What was unusual was the decision to opt out of them entirely, ahead of time, and to publicly question the rules and practices surrounding them. Osaka also sent a private e-mail to French Open officials apologizing for any affront and saying that she would like to “work with the Tour” to set up a new system once the tournament was done. But the officials at all four Grand Slams treated both this e-mail and her initial statement as existential threats. After trying and failing to engage with Osaka, they said, they issued a joint statement to publicly warn her that the penalties would escalate if she maintained her stance and that she could be expelled from the tournament. Within a day, she had pulled out. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer,” Osaka wrote, announcing her withdrawal. She went on to say that she has suffered from bouts of depression ever since the 2018 U.S. Open, and that she struggles with anxiety when she talks to the media.

Shortly after her announcement, the president of the French tennis federation, Gilles Moretton, read a statement wishing Osaka a speedy “recovery.” Without any apparent awareness of the irony, he did not take questions from the press.

It has not, traditionally, been the job of the press, or the job of the public, to protect the feelings of prominent public figures. Athletes have long been praised for their stoicism. But, as ideas and attitudes about mental health have shifted, and as athletes have become more outspoken about aspects of the profession that many of them consider demeaning or dehumanizing, the dynamic between players and the press has changed, too. Mental health is, and perhaps always will be, imperfectly understood; there are, and probably always will be, arguments about what, if anything, professional athletes owe to the press and to the public, and what is owed to them. Athletes are entitled to their humanity, but not necessarily to perfect self-confidence. If Osaka’s first statement had read more like her second, the terms of the debate surrounding them might have been different—although some of the same battle lines likely would have been drawn.

Osaka has always been open about struggling with pressure and with the intensity of the attention that she receives, even when courting it with her extensive sponsorship commitments. After a first-round loss at Wimbledon, in 2019, she abruptly cut off a press conference, on the verge of tears. She has said that she doesn’t sleep during Grand Slams. In the wake of great victories, she has said that tennis had stopped being fun. “Whenever things go wrong I blame myself 100%, I have a tendency to shut down because I don’t want to burden anyone with my thoughts or problems,” she wrote, on social media, in August, 2019. The first time I spoke to her, five years ago, when she was ranked fortieth in the world, I asked her if there was anything she wanted people to know about her. “I’m extremely shy,” she answered.

Reading her second statement, I thought of her pulling down her visor in 2018, and of how alone she had looked that night. She hadn’t been alone, though. Standing next to her on the stage, Serena Williams saw her grab her visor, and put her arm around her. When asked recently about Osaka’s struggles, and what resources the tour offered to struggling players, Williams, one of the few people who might be able to imagine what Osaka’s life has been like these past few years, talked about the importance of actively seeking help. “I think that’s so important to have a sounding board, whether it’s someone at the W.T.A. or whether it’s someone in your life,” Williams said. “Maybe it’s someone that you just talk to on a weekly basis. I’ve been in that position, too. I’ve definitely had opportunities to talk to people, kind of get things off my chest that I can’t necessarily talk to anyone in my family or anyone that I know.” Tennis is notoriously punishing to the psyche, even without the complex dynamics that come with being a private person in a very public position, or a young woman of color in a sport run predominantly by white men, or an ambitious athlete who, on even her bad days, is expected to win every match. But, then, it’s impossible for any of us to know what is happening in Osaka’s mind, beyond what she tells us.


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