If there is one thing that all parties involved in the episode of Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open over media boycott can agree on, it should be this – that could have gone better.
The world No 2 could have worded her initial statement better. She admitted as much in her second.
The French Open organisers could have tried to understand and accommodate her better. Their initial reaction was emphatic, calling it a ‘phenomenal error.’
Osaka’s management and coaching team could have tried to initiate a discussion before the tournament began to find a middle ground after the player was approached to reconsider. The lack of dialogue became a turning point.
The four Grand Slams could have been less threatening in their joint response. The word ‘default’ became the trending phrase.
Essentially, both sides have been at fault and both parties have valid points. Perhaps a simple one-on-one conversation instead of public declarations could have stopped the situation from escalating. But instead, we witnessed a saga of one-upmanship and entitlement, warnings and snarky social media posts, misrepresentations and polarisation.
As things stand, there is little point in a post-mortem. Instead, the focus of all the stakeholders should be on what we learned from the whole incident, as uncomfortable as it is. The most important takeaway is that Osaka’s message should not be lost because of the medium or method. There has to be a change somewhere.
Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion and one of the sport’s most prominent ambassadors, admitted to having a mental health problem. She said she suffered from bouts of depression since winning her first Major at the 2018 US Open, in an extremely controversial final against Serena Williams.
At Roland Garros, a surface that she wouldn’t describe as her favourite by any yardstick, her anxiety was heightened and she felt the need to protect herself, hence she decided to announce a media boycott. This went against the tournament rules.
Before her second statement where she elaborated on her mental health issues, the organisers had asked her to reconsider, said her absence without consequence would be unfair to other players and warned of graver consequences. Before the second statement, others players said they had no issues with the media. After, most have come out in support.
Now post-match press conferences may be mandatory but are never really ideal for the losers. This is what she intended to highlight and the effect of media on a player already feeling down is subjective. Just like mental health.
Mental health is a complex subject, no one other than the person undergoing the strain can truly know what they are feeling and this impacts their perception and reaction to situations. Maybe this explains Osaka’s first statement, she did say it was an act of self-help.
Perhaps if there was a way for her to avoid the possible trigger of questions and continue playing without distractions and doubts. It is uncertain how it would work, but maybe someone from the player’s team or a medical professional associated with the tournaments could be a liaison and make this process easier in a profession where one has to deal with so many different people and situations.
Here’s another angle: If this was a physical injury, would a player be allowed to skip press for treatment? There would be some provision for the player to receive help before facing questions. Can there be a similar system for players unable to talk because of how they are feeling?
Osaka’s sister Mari Osaka and coach Wim Fisette said that the 23-year-old was trying to bring about change in the less desirable aspects of pro tennis. Maybe media interactions feel like a traditional and stifling setup to her and some others in this generation of social media.
But change is not an overnight occurrence, rather it is a collective conversation, as seen in the past in tennis. It has to be brought about by putting in the work, negotiating with stakeholders, and having a two-way dialogue. Ask Billie Jean King, the Original 9 of the WTA, or the Williams sisters.
Osaka, at the moment, may not be able to work towards this goal or even articulate her intentions well. But she has started the conversation and it is the cumulative duty of the tennis community – organisers, tours, players, and even the media and fans, to continue it in the right vein.
Her withdrawal from a Grand Slam has made mainstream news with scores of people beyond tennis offering support and condemning the organisers. But it is not a black-and-white issue, it’s a layered, complicated new slope for tennis in a world altered by a pandemic and increased internet access.
The French Open incident should not go down as a gender or race issue or make for keyboard activism, but it should be a catalyst for real change in tennis. The onus for this lies on every person who loves and follows the sport and not just Osaka.