Let’s Have a Good-Faith Discussion About Naomi Osaka

Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Is it possible to have a levelheaded discussion about Naomi Osaka’s decision to drop out of the French Open on Monday? Or has everyone already retreated to their corners, with one side arguing that mental health trumps all and the other lamenting a younger generation’s supposed entitlement?

Let’s try. In fact, let’s try it in the format Osaka, like many other athletes, so abhors: a direct question-and-answer session. Let’s assume the questioners are the unwashed media masses and the answers come from a theoretical, good-faith, just-trying-to-find-the-right-answer-and-make-the-world-a-better-place wise old seer. Hey, come on, all of this is imaginary — just play along for a while.

What is the backstory to Osaka’s French Open withdrawal?

Heading into the tournament, Osaka said she would not be talking to the press at the French Open, a direct violation of the tournament’s and the tour’s rules. Officials at the French Open announced they would fine her $15,000 for every press conference she skipped and added, ominously, that she risked being “defaulted” from the tournament, and potentially from future Grand Slams, if she continued to break their rules. This was a strong, perhaps overly aggressive maneuver. Osaka, who reportedly did not respond to organizers’ attempts to speak with her about the issue, responded by dropping out of the tournament altogether. She then released a statement on social media explaining that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” and that she was dropping out of the tournament partly out of “self-care.”

Is she okay?

Well, no one can speak for Osaka’s mental health, and she seems to be battling with it herself. Unfortunately for her, when she is having a difficult time, she has to go through it with the entire world watching. As she said in her statement, she has a long history with social anxiety, which is hard enough to deal with, and much harder when a bunch of journalists start peppering her with questions.

Is there any reason the press would be after her in particular? Isn’t she really popular?

She’s very popular: She made more than $50 million last year and has many, many endorsement deals. (Including one with Japanese media company Wowow, which, because it was paying her, actually did get to ask her some questions at the French Open. Which is a little weird.) Osaka elevated her profile considerably through her social-justice advocacy work in 2020, particularly at the U.S. Open. A week after withdrawing from the Cincinnati Open in the aftermath of the Jacob Blake shooting, she came onto the court every day with a different mask that had a different name of a Black person who had been murdered. (She then proceeded to win the tournament.) It established her as a clear and penetrating activist voice in the sports community and led to her being named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. There’s not a lot of money or clout in going after Naomi Osaka.

But the tennis press covers, you know, tennis. And there were many reasons to ask Osaka about sports-related matters this week. She has long struggled on clay courts like the French Open’s — she has never made it past the third round there — and Osaka knew this would be a major focus of the media. And like any other athlete, Osaka wanted to push all negative thoughts from her head. As explained by her sister on Reddit, Osaka needed to “block everything out” and to assure “no talking to people who is [sic] going to put doubt in her mind.” That almost every question was going to center on clay-court problems is key context to this whole conversation. Osaka did talk about her hopes for less “outdated” press interactions in her statement. But there were specific reasons why Osaka, in particular, was primed for tough queries.

Why would the French Open care whether or not she talks to the press? Doesn’t it just care if she wins matches and sells tickets?

There are two reasons the French Open would make such a big deal out of this, one of them debatable and one not so much. The first reason is a version of the justification that usually gets trotted out: Talking to the press helps sell tennis, and if you make money from tennis (as Osaka obviously does), you owe it to the sport to promote it. The reason reporters want to talk to Osaka is that she’s the best story in the game right now, and there are a lot of people whose job it is to write about that game. If nobody cared about tennis, there would be no one to ask questions of Osaka and no platform for her to perform her brilliance (and to make millions of dollars). Thus, players are sent out to talk about tennis to writers who write about tennis. It’s called the promotional machine for a reason. Press conferences allow viewers a peek into athletes’ processes, mind-sets, and personalities. If we don’t know who Osaka is, and what she thinks about things (particularly clay courts, the one hill she hasn’t yet been able to climb), she’s just a random stranger hitting a ball back and forth across a net.

You can understand why Osaka wouldn’t see it this way, though, and she’s hardly alone, particularly in her generational cohort. The utility of sports press conferences is not always clear — they can have a rote quality to them, with both sides often seeming to just go through the motions. And as players have become more savvy, and journalists more desperate, the goal seems to be to wrest one viral answer or moment from an athlete rather than hold them to account. The grandstanding quotient can be very high.

The whole point of the media at these events has to seem completely absurd to young people like Osaka who have cultivated their own platforms outside of traditional avenues and must wonder why they need journalists at all. We can have discussions about accountability and ready-made narratives and access, but has the press conference outlived its usefulness? Then again: Sporting events are news events — they are arguably news in its purest form — and generally speaking, giving journalists the ability and freedom to cover news events is something many of the people defending Osaka now, including many journalists, have stood for in the past.

As I said: It’s tough! It’s debatable! What isn’t really debatable is the French Open officials’ other point: Osaka doesn’t get to skip press conferences when everyone else has to do them. “You cannot allow a player to have an unfair advantage by not doing post-match press,” ESPN tennis analyst Rennae Stubbs told the New York Times. “It’s time consuming, so if one player is not doing that and others are, that is not equal.” Maybe there’s a conversation to be had about whether press conferences are, as Osaka put it, “outdated,” whether they put too much strain on athletes during the most stressful moments of their careers. But it’s not something that Osaka just gets to decide, out of the blue, right before a tournament starts.

Tournament officials have taken a lot of heat for how they handled this, to the point where they’ve released a cleanup statement. But I suspect the thrust of their initial inclination was pretty simple, and understandable: Everyone has to deal with press conferences right now, and so do you.

Isn’t this about something larger than Osaka?

There has never been any other time over the past 60 years of sports when the idea that the press just shouldn’t be allowed to talk to the athletes would have gained any traction whatsoever. But everything about the athlete-journalist relationship has shifted. No one’s going to take the side of the press at a press conference anymore. Athletes hate them, because who wouldn’t hate them? How would you like it if, the minute you finished your job for the day, you had to sit in a room where a bunch of people you don’t know — and who will eat your heart out if it gets them a better story, don’t you forget it — ask you about all the things you did wrong? I’d totally hate it! I don’t even like to get those questions from my editor!

If I, as a fan, want to hear what Osaka has to say about her match, I have all sorts of options, not least of which are “watch Osaka talk about her match into her own phone.” Am I going to learn more about what’s going on by having good journalists ask her tough questions? Sure. And as a journalist myself, I care about that. But does the average person care more about that than Osaka feeling, in her terms, mentally healthy? Or more to the point: Why would any fan side with some person they don’t know, someone who can’t hit 124 miles per hour on her serves, over Osaka? If Osaka’s upset and not playing her best, and she says it’s because of the pressure of the press — well, there was a time when the public would have sided with the press on that one. But not anymore.

The worst-case scenario, it turns out, has already happened: No one — not her fans, not the press, not Osaka herself — gets to see her play on one of her sport’s biggest stages. How this situation gets resolved will come down to power: who has it, who doesn’t, and what fans, in the end, actually care about. Who will get what they want here? Osaka, who just illustrated how important this is to her by quitting a tournament entirely, or a bunch of faceless members of a profession that everyone is constantly complaining about and whose members an alarmingly high percentage of the population thinks are lying all the time anyway? You don’t have to be a wise old seer to figure that one out.

Let’s Have a Good-Faith Discussion About Naomi Osaka