Osaka’s withdrawal raises questions about the utility of press conferences

It’s unfortunate that Osaka was forced to speak out about her inner demons after being pushed to a corner, but credit to the young woman for sticking to her guns where others might have found the temptation to toe the line irresistible.

Several athletes in tennis and other sports have supported Osaka after her stunning decision to quit the French Open

For all the uber-confidence she exudes on the tennis court, Naomi Osaka has come across as a shy, reticent, introverted person off it. A hesitant, if not reluctant, public speaker, it was clear she found courtside post-match speeches more daunting than battling against the best in the business. But until Monday, no one quite knew what the Japanese world No. 2 was going through.

Osaka stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest on the eve of the French Open last week when she announced on social media that she would skip mandated post-match press conferences even if that meant attracting clearly laid out sanctions. The four-time Grand Slam champion wrote, “We are… asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

Osaka’s decision attracted condemnation, though it did also find approbation from within the active tennis community, indicating that she wasn’t alone in harbouring misgivings over fronting the media after each game, glorious win or miserable loss notwithstanding.

True to her conviction, Osaka steered clear of the press after her first-round win on Sunday, though she did answer questions courtside in a brief interaction with Marion Bartoli, the former Grand Slam winner from France. Inevitably, the authorities sprung into action, slapping the maximum $15,000 fine and promising more severe action —including potential disqualification — should Osaka continue to boycott the press.

Acting swiftly to eliminate potential escalation, Osaka withdrew from the year’s second Grand Slam on Monday, explaining in a statement that she hadn’t wanted to be a ‘distraction’. She added that she had suffered ‘long bouts of depression’ since her victory in the 2018 US Open final against Serena Williams, her breakthrough Grand Slam triumph, and that she faces ‘huge waves of anxiety’ before speaking with the media.

No matter which side of the fence one is on when it comes to press conferences, Osaka’s words can hardly be taken lightly. For reasons unknown, mental health has historically not been treated with the same gravity as medical illness, though a welcome shift in perception is visible. Especially in these extraordinarily difficult times, there can be no compromise on mental health. It’s unfortunate that Osaka was forced to speak out about her inner demons after being pushed to a corner, but credit to the young woman for sticking to her guns where others might have found the temptation to toe the line irresistible.

Also read: Is it fair to fine Naomi Osaka for not speaking to media?

Osaka is the latest in a long line of public figures to talk openly about mental health issues, a development that should encourage others in a similar situation but choosing to ignore them because they are besieged by the likely stigma talking about it/seeking help might attract.

What Osaka has also done, and not just inadvertently, is train the focus on the purpose of press conferences, and whether they actually translate into something productive and constructive.

We no longer live in an era where the media is the interface between the celebrity and the fan. Social media allows stars to interact with their supporters on their own terms, in their own time, at their own comfort. The already significant divide between the player and the media is growing wider by the minute; especially within the corridors of Indian cricket, there is a distrust bordering on contempt, not helped by mounting numbers within the cricketing media and a thinly veiled sense of entitlement from the big-ticket names.

From experience, one can assert that most press conferences border on the boring — and I am talking largely from a cricket perspective. There is a little bit of mental sparring, but any player who walks into the room broadly knows what questions to expect, just as those on the other side of the table easily anticipate the answers those queries will elicit.

Most of us understand that ‘How do you feel?’ isn’t the sort of question you can ask a captain whose team has suffered a heart-breaking loss, or a player who has had a miserable day in office. Some of us still pursue that line of questioning, often aggressively, which is both insensitive and disrespectful. After all, these are young players —Osaka herself is just 23 —doing their utmost to make a success of their careers. There is no guarantee for performance, just as there is no shame in defeat if one has given their best.

Then again, one has been witness to events that have hardly edified the principal protagonist. In my early days as a reporter when live television coverage of such events was not even on the radar, I was mortified to see the then Indian cricket captain arrive at a press conference armed with a nail-cutter, which he put to excellent use even as questions were thrown at him. Suffice to say that it wasn’t the most pleasant Q & A session one has been a part of.

Having said that, there have been several Indian cricketers who have enjoyed jousting with the media. They speak their mind, are unafraid to express themselves, have a great sense of humour, and don’t suffer fools gladly. Of the current bunch, perhaps the only one who ticks all these boxes is R Ashwin.

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‘Doing press’ has been a constant on the sporting firmament for such a long time now that all actors involved pretty much take it for granted. Osaka has questioned the existing dynamics, and while she is the most recent one, she isn’t alone. Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic in the past haven’t minded coughing up a peanut or two after deciding to skip a presser, while NBA star Kyrie Irving has twice been fined $25,000 and then $35,000 for not adhering to media requirements.

After Osaka’s withdrawal statement, Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, called for a press conference and read out a statement wishing her ‘the quickest possible recovery.’ He left without taking questions. Ironic much?