Tuesday, June 01, 2021

Naomi Osaka challenges the status quo again

For someone that purports to be a private and publicity-shy person, Naomi Osaka certainly appears to court controversy. I think it's just that she's a woman of strong and deep principles who is willing to stand up and speak out about them. But you'd be forgiven for thinking that she actually sets out to deliberately bait the press and the powers that be. Whether she intends it or not, she has what I have seen described as "a flair for drama".

In her latest tangle with the tennis authorities, the Japanese-American tennis player, currently ranked number 3 in the world, has refused to submit to the traditional after-match press conferences during the Roland Garros French Open, which she says are stressful and anxiety-provoking and impact negatively on her (and others') mental health, particularly when discussing a loss. She says she is willing to discuss her performance after the competition ends, but she does not need the added stress of press deconstructions and insinuations during the actual competition.

The Roland Garros organization says that Ms. Osaka is failing to meet her competition obligations and responsibilities and has slapped a $15,000 fine on her (which I'm sure she is not too worried about, earning as she does in excess of $30 million a year), and has warned her that she risks expulsion from the competition (she has withdrawn unilaterally) and from future Grand Slam events if she continues down her misguided path. 

And yes, it is in fact obligatory under the terms of the competition, although occasionally others, including luminaries like Novak Djokovic and Venus Williams, have also in past years elected to pass on the media and just pay the fine. The question Naomi Osaka raises is, should it be? Part of Roland Garros' argument is that not participating in after-match press conferences would give her an "unfair advantage" over others who do have to submit to the intrusive and sometimes humiliating (as well as, all too often, formulaic and tedious) tradition, which is frankly ridiculous, and in itself a good indication that the practice should be terminated forthwith.

She has had little or no support from other top tennis players, who appear to have all drunk the CoolAid, and say things like the pressers are "part of the job" and "essential to promote and develop the game". Is a great performance and a thoroughly engaging display of skill not enough to promote the game, then? Even her own tennis-player sister gave only partial and highly-qualified support for her position, and even appeared to cast doubt on Ms. Osaka's claim to have suffered from depression since her ascent to the top levels of tennis.

And yet, I see no compelling reason why a press conference should be considered a prerequisite obligation, part of the price the players must pay for their handsome earnings and their prestigious and influential positions in the world. Surely, years of grinding practice and professional development should suffice, no? What they really mean is that the press conferences are good for the competitions' television audiences, and therefore for their own bottom lines. 

So, maybe you could call Ms. Osaka's outburst a hissy fit; maybe she could be accused of being precious, and should have known what she was getting into. But surely there's no good reason why the players should be compelled into it. There are many sports people who are quite happy to talk about themselves on television for hours. Let them do so, if they like, but there should be no obligation. Just because that is the way it has always been (and remember, it hasn't "always" been this way), doesn't mean that it is the way it should be. Naomi Osaka, once again, is just the first person to publicly question the system, and to insist that the current set-up should be at least discussed. She says, "I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans". Well, power to her!

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