Naomi Osaka’s No-Win Standoff with the French Open

The post-match press conference has yielded as many iconic moments as it has sporting clichés: I’m thinking of Kevin Keegan’s infamous ‘I will love it’ rant, former Leicester City manager Nigel Pearson’s ‘ostrich’ tirade, and, further afield, Mike Tyson’s ‘I wanna eat your children’. With the press conference come a fair share of gaffes. One understands, then, Naomi Osaka’s reluctance to engage in this high pressure format, which—depending whether win or loss—finds athletes either at their most exuberant heights or at their most vulnerable lows. It also gets coaches when they’re in the firing line. (And sometimes they come out with gloves off.) In every case, these individuals are at their most fatigued, sometimes their most despondent, making the the press conference at best a redundancy, at worst, a sadistic ritual. 

Compounding this is the sexism that pervades the way male journalists tend to ask female sportsplayers questions in these settings, a tone which remains despite high profile figures like Andy Murray trying to correct male-centrism in the sports world. However, even though many fellow athletes are rushing to Osaka’s support, the tennis champion has also been subject to a surprising amount of criticism for refusing to undergo the tournament’s press circuit. Some have criticised her manner of announcing it publicly (without telling the tournament), while others—even sympathetic voices—argue that allowing one person to abstain from the press conference would give that player an unfair advantage, given how draining they are. 

Self-confessedly shy, Naomi Osaka seems to have found herself in the midst of a battle that has rapidly escalated beyond what she intended. Indeed, the faultlines between those who herald her bravery and those who pillory her ‘diva behaviour’ are the now-quite predictable ones which form the battle lines between parties in other familiar cultural rows. It is a shame that this issue, which could have been resolved rationally and privately between player and tournament, has now attracted to it a host of other associations from the circumambient cultural atmosphere. In part, this is due to the way these stories circulate in social media—social media volatilises any circumstance like this, and journalists are always looking for a way to take stories off the sports pages onto the front page. In the world of today’s cultural factionalism, every thing is about everything else, Osaka has become both totem and taboo in one fell swoop. 

For the left, she is now a brave campaigner for mental health. For the right, she is a ‘petulant madame’ (guess whose words) and a diva snowflake. But what does Osaka really want to say? That she is above all, I suspect—to paraphrase Notting Hill—just a tennis star, standing in front of a press corps, asking them to leave her alone.

However fair her desire to stay out of the spotlight, Osaka might have inadvertently hoist her own petard when she waded into hot button cultural issues at the US Open—her BLM masks put her at the centre of a social media firestorm. Was that her goal? Surely part of the mixture that’s causing Osaka distress is the expectation—not just from members of the press but from the broader public—that sports stars also be political spokespeople for good. There is a large, corporate apparatus behind Naomi Osaka’s public persona—Nike has sponsored her since 2019, and though I am not doubting the sincerity of her desire to be a vessel for change, it is particularly rich that Nike are further pushing her further into the public eye, paradoxically now that she has announced her desire to get away from it, by describing her as a ‘champion of mental health.’ 

I suspect, if they asked her, Nike would find Osaka does not really want to be a champion of anything other than tennis. I still remember her response at the US Open when asked about the meaning behind her wearing #BlackLivesMatter masks. Her response—despite her obvious sincerity and desire to use her platform for good—suggested a deep discomfort with answering the question. You could tell she felt out of her depth.

It is not just the format of the press conference then that causes athletes distress. Rather, it’s the entire apparatus of stardom that is built up around people who are trained to do one thing, and expected to be another set of things—advocate, role model, spokesperson, campaigner, and champion of the people all-in-one. There is also a rich tradition of sports people becoming public figures by declining to be a public figure, like Caesar denying the crown three times, and profiting from it. I can’t help seeing this as just one more turn of the publicity screw along a pre-existing cultural faultline. I also can’t help feeling like that’s not what Naomi Osaka wants. Or better, needs.