PARIS — Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open was not the consequence anybody in tennis desired, and but it occurred simply the similar.
It may seemingly have been prevented via higher communication and smarter selections, however on Monday night time the sport’s most distinguished younger star felt she had no higher possibility than to drag out of the 12 months’s second Grand Slam event.
Her second-round match with Ana Bogdan shall be a walkover for Bogdan as an alternative of one other likelihood for the second-ranked Osaka, 23, to make steps ahead on pink clay, a floor that has lengthy bedeviled her.
“Above all, it’s just really sad: for her, for the tournament, for the sport,” stated Martina Navratilova, a former No. 1 who has seen loads of tennis turmoil in her 50 years in the recreation. “She tried to sidestep or lessen a problem for herself and instead she just made it much bigger than it was in the first place.”
It shouldn’t be clever at this stage to take a position on the full scope of Osaka’s points. She continues to be coming to grips with them herself, and she or he stated in her withdrawal announcement on social media that she had skilled lengthy bouts of melancholy since the 2018 United States Open that she received by defeating Serena Williams in a tumultuous closing.
What is evident is that the catalyst in Paris, if solely the catalyst, was certainly one of skilled sport’s staples: the information convention.
Osaka, citing her psychological well being, introduced forward of the event that she wouldn’t “do any press” throughout the French Open. News conferences are required at the Grand Slams for gamers who’re requested, and Osaka was the first tennis star to make it clear that she supposed to interrupt the rule for so long as she was in the event.
Her announcement on social media caught the French Open organizers and sport’s management unexpectedly. That was her first misjudgment. Her subsequent was failing to be accessible when these tennis leaders justifiably sought extra info.
Gilles Moretton, the new French Tennis Federation president, and others repeatedly tried to talk together with her with out success.
When she did certainly skip the information convention after her first-round victory on Sunday over Patricia Maria Tig, the French Open fined her $15,000 and the Grand Slam event chiefs made it clear that she risked being defaulted from the event and future Grand Slam tournaments if she continued to say no to satisfy her media duties.
It was a tough line: too laborious in gentle of what Osaka defined on Monday night time. Depression is extra frequent in sports activities than many would count on. The downside was that Osaka didn’t provide tennis’s leaders that rationalization — in public or apparently in non-public — till Monday night time.
Considering Osaka’s prominence and the elevated consciousness of and sensitivity to athletes’ mental-health challenges, it’s laborious to think about that Moretton or the different Grand Slam leaders wouldn’t have tried to work together with her to discover a extra conciliatory short-term resolution if they’d been given a clearer image.
Instead, they have been left too lengthy in the darkish: with Osaka focusing her pretournament complaints on reforming the sport’s player-media mannequin, citing overly repetitive questions and contours of inquiry that made her doubt herself. There are maybe higher methods for skilled journalists to seek out out extra about tennis gamers and their matches.
Tennis champions and would-be champions have been coping with such challenges in the interview room for many years and if Osaka is delicate to questions on her weaknesses on clay, think about how Pete Sampras felt when he was requested about his personal failings for greater than a decade as he tried and didn’t win Roland Garros.
And but he saved exhibiting up for information conferences and chasing the prize, simply as Jana Novotna did at Wimbledon earlier than lastly profitable the singles title in 1998.
As Billie Jean King likes to say, stress is a privilege, and repetitive questions are an inconvenience but in addition a mirrored image of legit public curiosity. Media protection, a lot of it favorable, has helped Osaka grow to be the world’s greatest paid feminine athlete. She earned greater than $55 million in the final 12 months, almost all of it from sponsorship offers.
Facing unwelcome questions, even in defeat, doesn’t appear to be an excessive amount of to ask. “No comment” or a extra well mannered demurral stay legit choices. But certainly one of the takeaways from l’affaire Osaka could also be the realization that some gamers actually do discover all of it an excessive amount of to bear. The query shall be, how a lot particular remedy ought to such gamers obtain?
One of the causes for the Grand Slam tournaments’ laborious line with Osaka was the want for equity.
“I think Naomi has always struggled with public speaking and dealing with the press has always made her anxious and so it’s finally come to a head,” stated Rennae Stubs, a former No. 1 doubles participant who’s now a tour-level coach and ESPN analyst. “You cannot allow a player to have an unfair advantage by not doing post-match press. It’s time consuming, so if one player is not doing that and others are, that is not equal. But after this, it’s time to really take a hard, long look at all of it.”
Williams was sympathetic after her first-round victory in Paris on Monday.
“I feel for Naomi,” she stated. “I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. I’ve been in those positions. We have different personalities, and people are different.”
“I’m thick,” Williams stated, apparently referring to the thickness of her pores and skin. “Other people are thin. Everyone is different, and everyone handles things differently. You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can.”
That is a advantageous sentiment, however additionally it is essential to study when issues go awry. It appears clear that if this unlucky state of affairs had been dealt with in another way from the begin, Osaka wouldn’t have felt she had grow to be an excessive amount of of a distraction and can be preparing for spherical two in Paris as an alternative of packing her baggage, uncertain of when she is going to play subsequent with Wimbledon beginning in lower than a month.
But the underlying points that Osaka faces would seemingly have remained.
“The bottom line is that this is about more than talking to the press,” Navratilova stated. “This goes much deeper than that, and we have no way of knowing, nor should we speculate, just how deep it does go.”