Tennis player Naomi Osaka's ordeal an eye opener for journalists

Naomi Osaka of Japan

Naomi Osaka of Japan hits a return against Jessica Pegula of the US in their women's singles first round match at the WTA China Open tennis tournament in Beijing on September 29, 2019. 

Photo credit: Wang Zhao | AFP

I have seen the furore surrounding Naomi Osaka not wanting to have interviews with the press, and it is making me wonder why it is taking so long for the press to accept responsibility for what they do to the people they interview – whether athletes, or criminals or writers, or, in the recent past, princesses.

If you’re not up to date with the happenings, Osaka has decided that during the French Open, she will not be attending or taking the official press interviews required in her contract.  There are fines that this elicits, yes, but athletes are allowed to opt out and pay the fines.

She is not the first and will not be the last (Serena and Venus Williams have been fined for the same, for instance), not even in her sport. Osaka even decided to step away from playing in the French Open, saying she wants people to focus on the tournament, not on her.

And this is not an invalid take. Osaka says she is stepping away from the Open’s interviews because of her mental health and its deterioration that stems from these interviews. She adds that she has been suffering from mental health issues and depression, exacerbated by interviews in which journalists ask her questions that shake her confidence and make her game worse.

"Hurting tennis"

Aren’t we here to watch the best athletes play their best games? Why is it so difficult for the world to understand when someone doesn’t want to expose themselves to something like that?

Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation and a former men’s tour player…said Osaka is "hurting tennis".

That’s ridiculous and a bit obtuse, to be honest, because at the basic level, you need players to play. The crowd is not coming to watch the clay court. Isn’t tennis hurt more when the best players can’t play?

This discomfiture has happened before. You know the famous interview the Williams sisters had, that their father had to step into to stop the reporter from crushing his little girls' confidence. It was apparent, and decisively dealt with. Not everyone has that benefit.

And it keeps happening. Osaka has written on Instagram: "We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me."

How is this unreasonable?

Serious effects

The questions asked at a presser – any presser, any interview – have a direct effect on the outlook and feeling, and thus performance, of whoever is on the receiving end.

It doesn’t matter how professional someone is – they can still completely lose their cool in the face of a reporter who pushes too hard or simply doesn’t understand nuance.

So my questions is this – are these journalists truly necessary, and if so, are they being vetted properly, and by whom?

In addition, are they also given punitive fines if they ask something that affects a player’s game, or is this wholly one-sided, and is that why they are so cavalier?

And are the post press interviews for tennis so important that an entire tennis federation has to fight with the number 2 tennis player in the world for them – at risk of not having her play at all?

Other cases

Outside of sports - let’s not act like we don’t know that Princess Diana was running away from paparazzi when she died – paparazzi that media houses encourage to get scoops by any insalubrious means necessary.

Let’s not act like we don’t all know that British media caused a significant depressive spell for the Duchess of Sussex that eventually culminated in her leaving the royal family.

History repeats itself, even here at home, where how the media consistently covers femicide in Kenya is directly linked to how little people care about these murders.

Surely the press cannot be so lofty as to think that we have nothing to do with this. Even as world sport looks at itself, newsrooms need to also look within.

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