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Explained: How things came to a head between Naomi Osaka and French Open

Naomi Osaka at French Open: Matters came to a head over her refusal to attend press conferences citing mental health issues, with the organisers and tennis officials insisting that it was part of a player’s duties.

By: Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: June 8, 2021 10:02:16 am
Naomi Osaka of Japan reacts during a match in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open tennis tournament on March 31, 2021. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Matters came to a head over her refusal to attend press conferences citing mental health issues, with the organisers and tennis officials insisting that it was part of a player’s duties.

The background

Osaka was loudly booed by the US Open crowd in her first Grand Slam final appearance in 2018 at the age of 20. An argument between her opponent Serena Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos erupted into three code violations for the American, the last of which earned her a game penalty. This meant Osaka served for the title, as she won her maiden Grand Slam crown.

But the trophy presentation ceremony was marred by the pro-Serena crowd booing every announcement, leaving the Japanese player in tears.

There were previous instances also when Osaka had talked about being depressed. In 2018, at Charleston, she said in a post-match conference, “This kind of started yesterday. Yesterday I woke up and I was really depressed but I don’t know why.” The clip finishes with Osaka smiling and saying, “I’m so sad right now”.

In 2019, Osaka admitted during the Indian Wells tournament that her biggest problem was the media and their constant focus on her.

Taking a stand On May 27, Osaka issued a statement saying she would not do press conferences at the French Open. Doing so would invite fines, which she was willing to pay.

Organisers, the media, family

When Osaka refused to attend the post-match presser after her first-round victory, a $15,000 fine followed along with a threat that failure to attend future press conferences could result in her expulsion from the tournament and other Grand Slam events.

Then an account on Reddit, in the name of her sister Mari Osaka, tried to clarify the issue. Stating that her sister’s “confidence was shattered” because of constant criticism of her performances on clay, Mari said that Naomi wanted to block out all the negative words directed at her and was paid to play tennis, not attend press conferences.

The fine – followed by the Roland Garros Twitter account showing other players in press conferences and saying ‘They understood the assignment’ – ended any hope of finding a middle ground. It prompted Osaka to pull out of the tournament.

What Osaka said

“I think now the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis,” stated Osaka in a note on Monday. “I never wanted to be a distraction and I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantly, I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly.”

Players’ reaction

Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic said that attending press conferences was part of their responsibilities.

Post Osaka quitting the tournament, Martina Navratilova tweeted, “As athletes we are taught to take care of our body, and perhaps the mental & emotional aspect gets short shrift. This is about more than doing or not doing a press conference. Goodluck Naomi — we are all pulling for you!”

Serena said, “I feel for Naomi. Not everyone is the same. I’m thick. 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…”

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