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Osaka's Press Silence Leaves Tennis In Lurch

Naomi Osaka hitting a tennis ball with a racket
Peter Menzel
Naomi Osaka / Photo by Peter Menzel via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The game typically played this time of the year on the red clay of Roland Garros in Paris is tennis, namely the French Open.

But the contest currently in play between tournament officials and Naomi Osaka is more chicken than tennis.

The two sides are squaring off in a battle that threatens the 1984 finals match between Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe for intensity.

At issue is whether Osaka can avoid attending post-match press conferences without consequences.

Osaka, who is ranked second in the world, posted on her social media accounts last week that she wouldn’t subject herself to people who "doubt me" by taking part in press conferences.

She said that people "have no regard for athletes’ mental health," a belief she said frequently comes into play in a press conference.

Osaka, who has four Grand Slam titles, noted that athletes are often asked repeat questions, queries that bring doubt into an athlete’s mind, hence her desire not to face the media.

Osaka, who is 23, went on to note that she had been interviewed since she was young and has a friendly relationship with most journalists.

Nonetheless, she said the organizations that run tennis tournaments continue to ignore the mental health of players, a situation that makes her laugh.

Not to be outflanked, French Open officials told Osaka that she would initially be fined $15,000 for skipping the press session after her first match, which she did and for which she was.

Then, with the support of the other three Grand Slam events – the Australian and U.S. Opens and Wimbledon – French officials told Osaka that the penalties for continuing to bag on press conferences would increase exponentially, up to and including disqualification and suspension.

It would be easy to dismiss Naomi Osaka as a spoiled Gen Z type with little to no sense of what true barriers to mental health are.

But that criticism is cheap and facile and Osaka does have a right to have her feelings aired and considered, feelings that, by the way, are shared by a large number of athletes and the public.

The problem with Naomi Osaka and folks of that mindset is that view presumes that the sports press has very little purpose, and is an unnecessary evil in the process.

Clearly, the rise of vehicles like social media and athlete-run outlets like the Players Tribune have lessened the significance of the nattering nabobs of negativism, as former Vice President Spiro Agnew once famously called the press.

But even if athletes want to avoid tough questions after a loss, which is what Osaka is really trying to accomplish, the leagues and organizations recognize that the media, in all forms, is critical to how sports functions.

Even Osaka has used press conferences to make important statements regarding police-involved shootings and racism, to name two topics.

The history of tennis will go on with or without Naomi Osaka. She can be an important part of it, but only if she figures out how she wants to be included in that history.

And like it or not, that history will be written by those nabobs, because they’re not going away anytime soon. Nor should they.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Get in touch:

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @SportsAtLarge

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.