Naomi Osaka is accused of telling a blatant lie in defending her boycott
The tennis world has turned against Naomi Osaka, with pundits questioning what the sport's pin-up girl is truly concealing.
Naomi Osaka has failed to read the room for the first time in her career.
The 23-year-old has firmly established herself as the face of tennis as a result of her off-court activism, which matched her on-court success on her way to becoming the richest female athlete.
However, the world No. 2's decision to boycott press conferences at the French Open — citing a lack of concern for athletes' mental health — has divided the tennis world, with pundits rallying to defend the media and fellow players withdrawing support from the world No. 2.
Ash Barty, Rafael Nadal, Iga Swiatek, and Kei Nishikori were among the top players who stated that speaking to the press is a necessary part of their jobs, and the four grand slams issued a sensational joint statement threatening to disqualify Osaka if she failed to meet her media obligations.
Mari Osaka, Osaka's sister and a former tennis pro herself, weighed in on the debate, stating that her sibling's decision to boycott the media was motivated by doubts about her sibling's ability to perform on clay courts — some prompted by family members. Mari stated that Osaka desired to "block out everything" and avoid speaking with "people who are (sic) going to cast doubt in her mind."
“She is safeguarding her mind, which is why it is called mental health,” Mari explained.
However, she quickly deleted her post and apologized after it sparked an outpouring of criticism, with many questioning why Osaka was discussing mental health when it appeared as though she was attempting to avoid criticism for her performances.
Is the boycott of press conferences concealing something more sinister?
Osaka, who is accustomed to universal admiration, has come under fire for bringing up the broader subject of "mental health" in response to what many experts believe is a personal insecurity about her form and track record on clay.
She has never advanced past the third round in Paris and has won just one match in two clay court tournaments this season.
Tennis reporter Ben Rothenberg elaborated on this point on the No Challenges Remaining podcast, arguing that Osaka's focus on the two words "mental health" has landed her in a pickle.
“At the heart of this complaint is a strong emphasis on results. It's really about discussing the tennis side of the equation and having to come and discuss a loss that she finds so vexing," Rothenberg explained.
“When I read this (Osaka's statement), my first thought was, 'Wow, she must be so low on confidence heading into the French Open.' She is imagining how she will feel if she loses there, or bracing herself for defeat rather than going out and winning her third grand slam in a row. She is not in the mood for this French Open; she is not up to it.”
Rothenberg questioned Osaka's specific reference to people in the media having "no regard for athletes' mental health."
“To me, that does not ring true in terms of Naomi Osaka's press conference experience,” he stated.
“Her chosen career path as an elite, grand slam champion-level athlete will be demanding and difficult... you have to embrace both sides of that as part of the gig. It's all part of the job description.
“I'm not entirely convinced that's what's going on here. If you're in this position where you're taking losses so badly that a couple of questions about a loss will truly set you off in a negative way, then why are you taking the court at a grand slam and putting yourself on the line in that sort of arena, on that battlefield, if you're truly feeling that vulnerable, fragile, or ill? This broad brushstroke of the term'mental health' does not entirely capture what I believe she is attempting to convey here.
“She is attempting to convey the message, 'I want to dispel any doubts about my athletic performance.' That, in my opinion, is not mental health; that, in my opinion, is being an athlete.”
As Rothenberg suggested, Osaka's protest is more about her lack of confidence at this point in the season than anything else.
“I believe the statement she issued implies that this is more of an Osaka issue than a press issue,” Roberts told The Tennis Podcast.
“It felt to me as though she was speaking from a deeply personal place, and the fact that she released this statement on the heels of some poor form, heading into Roland Garros where she is struggling a little on the clay, she is fielding more questions about her performance than at any other point in her career, seemed not coincidental.
“That seems to me to be a problem that top athletes face, and I don't believe that not going to press is the answer.”
Tumaini Carayol, a journalist, was taken aback by Osaka's stance, given that she is "at the top of the list of players who have had it the easiest" when it comes to being grilled by the press.
“The vibe in her press conferences is generally excellent, especially in comparison to how it can be with other players,” Carayol explained to No Challenges Remaining.
“I just don't believe people doubt (her) after everything we've seen her do on the court.
It's truly difficult for me to comprehend that this person, of all people, is from Osaka.”
Rothenberg concurred, adding, "Also worth noting here is that Naomi Osaka has had some of the best and easiest times in the press of anyone."
She has not received anything close to a raw deal from the media.”
'It is simply not true': Osaka's explanation was erroneous
Catherine Whitaker, a tennis broadcaster, agreed with Rothenberg that Osaka's generalization about "mental health" turned her off and defended the tennis media's approach to questioning athletes.
Whitaker told The Tennis Podcast, "The statement that people have no regard for athletes' mental health is simply not true."
“Obviously, some members of a press conference room have a higher regard for an athlete's mental health than others, but it is simply not true to say that the press does not care about an athlete's mental health on a broad scale.
It is simply not true to assert categorically that mental health is disregarded. “In that final paragraph (of Osaka's statement), there is another implication that athletes' mental health is disregarded. That implication irritates me. It simply cannot be ignored.”
Whitaker expressed sympathy for Osaka, who appears to be struggling on a personal level, and expressed hope for her well-being. She also favored an open dialogue between players and the press in order to ascertain "how both sides can be better understood."
Whitaker acknowledged Osaka's critical role in educating the media — and, by extension, tennis fans — about the difficulties players face at the elite level. She stated that while maintaining open lines of communication between celebrities and the media is "absolutely necessary," she added, "this sweeping denigration of the tennis media and their mission is upsetting." This does not strike me as considered. It sounds as if it's coming from a very frail place, and I'm hoping she's all right.”
What irritated Whitaker the most was Osaka accepting a fine for missing a Roland Garros press conference and stating in her statement that she hopes "the substantial amount that I am fined for this will go to a mental health charity."
Her fines will not be donated to charity because they will go to the Grand Slam Development Fund, which, according to Whitaker, does an incredible job of developing infrastructure and providing opportunities for players in less developed tennis nations.
“The implication is, 'I hope the fines go to a good cause,' and they do,” Whitaker explained.
Osaka cannot rely on personal conflicts to 'change the entire system.'
David Law, another tennis commentator, expressed hope for Osaka's well-being but called her boycott a "misjudgment."
“Just because she is struggling with it does not mean that the entire system should be changed,” Law explained on The Tennis Podcast.
“In the statement, she states, 'I will not be doubted' or 'I will not allow others to doubt me.' I'm sorry, but that is the way it is, and you must come to terms with it because it is a necessary part of being a professional tennis player. You cannot throw everything up in the air because it does not suit you at the time and you are feeling bad. "It frustrates me as a member of the media and on behalf of so many of my colleagues when the result of this is that so many people out there, who know nothing about it, are simply hammering the media again. It irritates me.”
Naomi continues to enjoy widespread support.
Not everyone, however, agrees with Osaka's stance. Rennae Stubbs, an Australian tennis legend turned commentator, responded to Osaka's initial statement, tweeting: "4 someone who now works in media and understands the value of quotes and sound bites, I was also a player, with feelings!" This move by Naomi is an incredible opportunity for the media to LISTEN to these players and appreciate how difficult it is for many of them to perform and improve!”
Ellen DeGeneres, the talk show host, told Osaka she was "sending you so much love and support."
Naomi Broady, a British tennis player, suggested that one solution might be to eliminate the requirement for players to speak to reporters within 30 minutes of their match, allowing them more time to process a difficult result.
“If only there was more time after that terrible loss to compose yourself, digest, and cry away from the spotlight,” she told the BBC last week.
“It's difficult because it's also your opportunity to demonstrate your passion and personality, but it's especially difficult when you're so upset that you're almost forced to do it quickly by the rules.”
Dina Asher-Smith, a British sprinter, is right behind Osaka, declaring: "This is so correct. I concur. I admire Naomi for having the courage to do this, and she is completely correct. The athletes' mental health cannot be overlooked in these situations.”
Zina Garrison, a former tennis player, and ex-Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg were among the athletes who expressed their support for Osaka on social media.
Osaka kept her word by skipping the post-match press conference following her straight sets victory over world No. 63 Patricia Maria Tig in the French Open's opening round. In round two, she will face unseeded Ana Bogdan.