Tennis Champion Naomi Osaka - The Fault Line Between Love and Hate

by Meredith Syms

I admittedly did not know much about professional tennis player Naomi Osaka until her name made world headlines last month, first for being threatened with sanctions for refusing to do press, and then for doing the unthinkable – removing herself from the French Open altogether.  I did not know that she is a four-time Grand Slam singles winner.  I did not know that she is the reigning champion of the U.S. Open and Australian Open.  Nor did I know she was the highest earning female athlete in 2020 with multiple endorsement deals from the likes of Nike and Nissan.

I am sure many who saw the recent, negative headlines also didn’t know about her exceptional record as a champion.  Instead, in the initial reporting, Osaka was portrayed as a primadonna who didn’t want to fulfill the off the court press commitments required of other players.   After winning her first match in the French Open, she did not hold the required press conference and she was promptly fined $15,000 and threatened with more fines and expulsion.  The next day she announced her withdrawal from the tournament citing mental health issues and she later withdrew from Wimbledon for the same reason.  According to Osaka’s sister, her boycott was precipitated by the press repeatedly criticizing her performance on clay.  Many athletes said Osaka should make herself available to the press as it was part of the job.

Once it became clear that Osaka was suffering from mental health issues and depression, many walked back their initial criticism and showed their support.  But are supportive words enough?  I started thinking, why does the sports industry put so much pressure on athletes to perform off the court or playing field with little regard to their mental health?

The obvious answer is money.  In fairness, you need to promote the competitions so people will buy tickets, food, apparel, etc.  There is a love hate relationship with the press for that reason – but where is the fault line?  When is it okay for an athlete to say certain questions are off limits as damaging to their competitive mindset or worse, to their long-term mental health?

In the wake of the controversy, a story has resurfaced of 14-year-old Venus Williams’ father cutting off a reporter at a press conference.  Asked by a reporter if she could beat her opponent, Venus replied “I know I can beat her.”  The reporter feigned surprise saying “You know you can beat her? Very confident.”  Venus agrees, saying “I’m very confident.”  The reporter presses on, “You say it so easily: Why?” “Cause I believe it,” Venus replies.  This is when Venus’s father cuts off the reporter, saying “When she say something, we done told you what’s happening. . . let her be a kid… Leave that alone!”

Mr. Williams was right to scold the reporter.  Why should the press be allowed unfettered access to players such that they are asking questions that could upset their mental health?  As Mia Hamm says “The most important attribute a player must have is mental toughness.”  

If we want to see champions perform at their best, shouldn’t the sports world see to it that the press does not cross the line in its questioning.  And in the specific case of Osaka, who describes herself as a naturally introverted and shy person, is there a balance that can be achieved so it will not interfere with her ability to play?  On the eve of a championship game, why should she have to be reminded by a barrage of press questions of her weaknesses?  Is that really necessary in the name of promotion?  It’s time for the sports world to step up its game of supporting its athletes and not always give in to the desire for a soundbite at any cost.  Hopefully, they will heed Chris Evert’s recent call for press conferences to be “more comfortable” for young players who may not be able to handle tough questions.