Assessing Osaka’s Sad Departure From the French Open

PARIS – Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open wasn’t the result everyone in tennis had wanted, and yet it happened anyway.

It could probably have been avoided through better communication and smarter decisions, but on Monday night the sport’s most prominent young star felt she had no better choice than to retire from the second Grand Slam tournament of the year.

Her second-round match with Ana Bogdan will be a walk in the park for Bogdan instead of another chance for second-placed Osaka (23) to step forward on red clay, a surface that has long been bothering her.

“Above all, it is really sad: for her, for the tournament, for the sport,” said Martina Navratilova, a former number 1 who has experienced a lot of tennis turbulence in her 50 years in the game. “She was trying to work around or reduce a problem for herself and instead just made it much bigger than it originally was.”

It is inadvisable to speculate about the full scope of Osaka’s troubles at this time. Still grappling with them herself, she said in her retirement announcement on social media that she’s had long periods of depression since the 2018 United States Open, which she won by beating Serena Williams in a tumultuous final.

It is clear that the catalyst in Paris, if only the catalyst, was one of the cornerstones of professional sport: the press conference.

Osaka announced ahead of the tournament, citing her sanity, that she would not be doing any press during the French Open. The Grand Slams require press conferences for players that are requested and Osaka was the first tennis star to make it clear that she intended to break the rule while she was in the tournament.

Her announcement on social media surprised the organizers of the French Open and the leadership of the sport. That was her first misjudgment. Her next was inaccessible when these tennis guides rightly sought more information.

Gilles Moretton, the new president of the French Tennis Federation, and others tried repeatedly to speak to her without success.

When she actually skipped the press conference after her first-round win against Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday, the French Open fined $ 15,000 and the Grand Slam tournament bosses made it clear that she was at risk from the tournament and To be excluded from future Grand Slam tournaments if they continued to refuse to perform their media duties.

It was a tough line: too tough given what Osaka said Monday night. “I feel for them, and I feel that the sport in general got this wrong,” said Pam Shriver, a former senior player and president of the WTA Tour Players Association. “I just feel like the Grand Slam statement put fuel on the flames in an irreversible way. I think they should have kept their views and efforts quiet, not making them public, and working behind the scenes. All the more so since the pandemic is still the elephant in the room and has hit so many young people so hard. “

Depression is more common in exercise than many would expect. The problem was that Osaka did not offer this explanation – publicly or apparently private – to tennis leaders until Monday evening.

Given Osaka’s notoriety and the growing awareness and sensitivity of athletes’ mental health issues, it’s hard to imagine that Moretton or the other Grand Slam leaders would not have tried to work with her to come up with a more forgiving short-term solution when they would do so had given a clearer picture.

Instead, they were left in the dark for too long: Osaka focused their pre-tournament complaints on reforming the sport’s player-media model, citing overly repetitive questions and questions that made them doubt themselves. There may be better ways for professional journalists to learn more about tennis players and their games.

Tennis and aspiring champions have been dealing with such challenges in the interview room for decades. If Osaka is sensitive to questions about their weaknesses on sand, imagine how Pete Sampras felt when asked about his own mistakes for more than a decade in trying and failing to win Roland Garros.

And yet he kept appearing at press conferences and chasing the award, just like Jana Novotna at Wimbledon before finally winning the individual title in 1998.

As Billie Jean King likes to say, pressure is a privilege and repetitive questions are an inconvenience, but also a reflection of the legitimate public interest. Media coverage, many of which are positive, has helped Osaka become the highest paid female athlete in the world. She made more than $ 55 million last year, almost all of it through sponsorship deals.

That brings with it its own new pressure. “She has a lot on her back,” said Marin Cilic, the Croatian male star who once collapsed in the middle of a Wimbledon final.

But asking unwanted questions, even in defeat, doesn’t seem like too much to ask. “No comment” or a more polite demeanor remain legitimate options. But one of l’affaire Osaka’s realizations might be that some players really find it too bearable (and it didn’t go unnoticed that Moretton didn’t ask any questions at his own brief press conference Monday night). The debate will be, how much special treatment should such players receive?

One of the reasons the Grand Slam tournaments were tough with Osaka was the desire for fairness.

“I think Naomi always struggled with public speaking and dealing with the press always made her anxious, so it’s finally coming to a head,” said Rennae Stubs, a former No. 1 doubles player who is now a coach on tour Level is and ESPN analyst. “You can’t give a player an unfair advantage if you don’t press after the game. It’s time consuming. So if one player doesn’t and others do, it doesn’t matter. But after that it’s time to really take a closer look at everything. “

Williams was compassionate after her first-round win in Paris on Monday.

“I feel for Naomi,” she said. “I feel like I wish I could hug her because I know what it is like. I’ve been in these positions. We have different personalities and people are different. “

“I’m fat,” Williams said, possibly referring to being thick-skinned. “Other people are thin. Everyone is different and everyone deals with things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants, the best she thinks she can. “

It’s a good feeling, but it’s also important to learn when things go wrong. It seems clear that if this unfortunate situation had been handled differently from the start, Osaka would not have felt too distracted and prepare for the second round in Paris instead of packing their bags, without knowing when she’s going to play Wimbledon next and start in less than a month.

But the underlying problems Osaka is facing would likely have remained.

“The bottom line is that this is more than just talking to the press,” said Navratilova. “This goes much deeper than that, and we have no way of knowing, nor should we speculate how deep it will go.”

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