Naomi Osaka discovers the power of her silence during French Open media boycott saga
Japanese superstar withdrew from Grand Slam on Monday having decided to shun media duties in order to protect her mental health
Naomi Osaka has never shied away from making big decisions and public statements. The same tennis player who threatened to withdraw from the 2020 Cincinnati Open as a social justice protest also wore face masks adorned with names of Black Americans killed by police during her run to the US Open title.
Osaka may be an introvert but her actions have often spoken much louder than words. The world No 2 has recognised the power of her platform and is attempting to use it for good.
However, as she has discovered this week in Paris, being one of the world's most influential athletes brings with it added responsibility and increased scrutiny.
Osaka's decision on the eve of the French Open to shun her media obligations in an attempt to protect her mental health proved divisive.
Fellow players shared their sympathy with the four-time Grand Slam champion but conceded that press conferences, although often mundane and inconvenient, are part and parcel of the job. Critics suggested that Osaka would gain an unfair advantage. Organisers warned that sanctions would be imposed.
They followed through on that threat, fining Osaka $15,000 for missing her press conference following the first round and stated that she could face expulsion from the tournament if the boycott continued.
In the end, Osaka jumped before she was potentially pushed, announcing her withdrawal on Monday evening "so everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis".
As is so often the case with public sagas nowadays, the reaction has been extreme and divided. In one corner, Osaka is a self-entitled spoilt brat who knows full well the obligations tennis players have with the media during a tournament – why participate when she knew the consequences? Superstar athletes like her would be nowhere without the publicity created by the press!
In the other, she has displayed huge amounts of courage to discuss her vulnerabilities and deserves to be left alone. How dare anyone call into question the legitimacy of her mental health struggles? The media are just a pack of hounds looking to tear athletes down!
As is so often the case, the issue is more nuanced and complicated than that, but let's not let that get in the way of some classic public outrage.
Press conferences can be part of the job and extremely uncomfortable environments for some athletes. Osaka can, as she said herself, have great relationships with members of the media and get anxious when dealing with the press. People can be successful and wealthy and battle depression and mental illness.
This is a 23-year-old athlete who's endured a meteoric rise to superstardom and is now the highest-paid sportswoman in the world. The spotlight shines brighter on Osaka than it does on almost any other athlete, and it is a status she has made plainly clear she is uncomfortable with.
For someone who has "suffered long bouts of depression" and gets "huge waves of anxiety", the added exposure is going to take its toll, particularly during the intense weeks of a Grand Slam tournament.
Osaka, we should assume, believed she was making the right decision to boycott her media duties for "self-care" purposes, but ultimately the furore surrounding the whole ordeal has defeated the entire purpose.
Now Osaka finds herself exactly where she was trying to avoid being in the first place: at the centre of attention.
Perhaps it should all be put down to ill-judged good intentions; the actions of a young woman still adjusting to her extreme levels of fame and influence.
Osaka said in her statement that she would be taking time away from the court and hopes to work with tennis authorities on ways "we can make things better for players, the press and fans".
Shunning the media entirely is obviously not the answer and a better balance is perhaps needed to safeguard players' mental health while allowing the press to still ask the tough questions (tough questions being decidedly different to sexist questions and condescending questions).
Osaka's actions have once again spoken louder than words, although this time not quite with the desired result, despite her best intentions.
Updated: June 1, 2021 05:06 PM