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The Naomi Osaka saga has revealed just how many monsters athletes have to deal with

Naomi Osaka in action at Roland Garros 2021
Naomi Osaka in action at Roland Garros 2021
Musab Abid
EXPERT COLUMNIST

Kids who are afraid of 'monsters under the bed' are often told they have nothing to fear if they don't look. But what do you do when you're an adult and not a kid, and the monsters are not just under your bed but all around you?

That may have been what Naomi Osaka thought after she was attacked from almost all corners of the tennis community for voicing a disagreement with an age-old practice. All it took was Osaka uttering the words "I'm not going to do any press during Roland Garros" for a barrage of vicious brickbats to come crashing down upon her.

The term 'drama queen' floated around unfettered, while 'privileged brat' and 'diva' were not far behind. None of the players showed much support either; Rafael Nadal gave a diplomatic statement about how the media is "a very important part of the sport", Novak Djokovic said press conferences are something "we have to do", Iga Swiatek called it "part of the job", Ashleigh Barty declared she's "never had problems answering questions". And Belinda Bencic even went as far as suggesting that Naomi Osaka does things just to be in the news.

But it's one thing for fans or even players to criticize such a move. It's quite another for the biggest governing bodies in the sport to get together and put out a detailed statement spelling out exactly how they will punish you if you continue trying to safeguard your mental health.

Roland Garros - and the other three Slams - saw fit to threaten Naomi Osaka with a default just because they would get a couple of press conferences fewer. Think about that for a moment; a 23-year-old has just declared that she's uncomfortable with talking to the press for one fortnight of the year. And your response is getting everyone together and formulating a strongly-worded statement telling her how you will flex your muscles if she tested your patience further.

In case you were wondering, the tennis world didn't get any kind of statement from the governing bodies when Benoit Paire was found spitting on the court in anger. Or when Damir Dzumhur threatened to hit the chair umpire over a disputed line call. Or when Nick Kyrgios tanked scores of matches.

All those things didn't require a detailed statement, but Naomi Osaka wishing to excuse herself from a couple of pressers does. Makes for great optics, doesn't it?

The Slams were already looking woefully regressive with their bully-like response, but Naomi Osaka's latest statement has made them seem 10 times worse. The Japanese revealed in a Twitter post on Monday that she has been battling depression and anxiety since 2018, and that she never intended for her media boycott to turn into such a big issue.

"I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world's media," Naomi Osaka wrote. "I get really nervous and I find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can."

The World No. 2 also stated that she had spoken privately with the tournament organizers, before declaring that she was going to take some "time away from the court".

You may not believe this, but many took this statement as an "apology" for a "mistake" that she had committed.

It's hard to fathom how a person admitting that she is suffering from depression can be looked at as a victory, but that's what some journalists seem to have taken it as. Here are some of the tweets in response to Naomi Osaka's heartfelt new statement:

Yes of course, we can all see how Naomi Osaka is the one who needs to "learn" from this. She is the one who should have "avoided" creating the issue in the first place. Sure she may be suffering from depression, but press conferences are so much more important than that trivial little condition, right?

We should ask ourselves whether having mandatory press conferences is still relevant in this day and age

Naomi Osaka at a press conference
Naomi Osaka at a press conference

It is perhaps a little understandable that journalists took issue with Naomi Osaka's initial statement, as it did point a finger at them in a rather harsh manner. But to hear them continue parrotting those same lines even after Osaka has explained her reasons for her decision is more than a little shocking for me.

Are press conferences really that important that they should take precedence over the players' mental health? For the record, Naomi Osaka was going by the book on this; she wasn't breaking any rules as she had agreed to pay the fine. But both the media and the organizers decided that a fine wasn't enough; they felt that the 23-year-old needed to be given far worse sanctions so that she would get back in line.

And all that for a stupid little press conference. Do a majority of the fans even care about pressers? The official YouTube channels don't even upload full videos of all pressers on their channels. How many fans have full access to every word that every player says?

Some have been arguing that press conferences make up a democratic channel that connects the athletes with the fans, which is true to a large extent. Nowhere else do you see reporters from the biggest organizations getting the same shot at talking to a star as a freelancer, and that leads to a wide variety of questions that often elicit interesting answers. But how do we know that this function wouldn't be served if pressers weren't mandatory, especially after a player has lost?

I've attended a fair few press conferences myself, and every time I've seen a player interacting with the media after a tough loss, I've wondered how they keep it together. If I had just tasted defeat despite giving my heart and soul on the court for three hours, I would probably start throwing things the moment someone asked me to explain what went wrong.

And yet all the players answer these questions with a calmness that borders on the robotic, and sometimes even with a smile.

Yes, they should all be given the highest praise for being able to compartmentalize their emotions and maintain their composure. But have we taken a moment to think about the toll that that would take on them? They have to keep gathering all their strength and be in the firing line day after day, no matter how they're feeling on the inside. Why should that be a part of anyone's job?

Athletes are paid to perform on the field; that is their main job, and everything else is just a favor. They are not dancing puppets who are supposed to do whatever we command even off the court. And it is amazing to see that so few people recognize such a simple fact.

Yes, athletes do sign a contract to fulfill certain media obligations, so they are legally bound to attend pressers. But they are also free to forego them as long as they pay the fine, which Naomi Osaka was perfectly willing to do.

The more pertinent question here, however, is whether media obligations need to be part of a player's contract in this day and age.

With the advent of social media, athletes are no longer cut off from the fans the way they used to be. Even if press conferences weren't mandatory, the fans would still get to know what a player was feeling. And a good example of that is Dominic Thiem.

The Austrian crashed out in the first round of Roland Garros on Sunday, and after the match he spoke at length to the media about how he was struggling to get his game up to speed. But a few hours later he also put out a statement on his social media handles giving a condensed version of pretty much the same thing. It is a reasonable estimation that a LOT more people would have read his own statement than what he said in the presser.

And let's not even get started on the insensitive way that some of the pressers are conducted. There had been a tweet doing the rounds suggesting that Naomi Osaka is often asked cute questions about her fashion collaborations. But how many people know that literally the first question posed to her after she won the 2019 Australian Open contained the words "Apparently you are unable to win a Slam without some drama"? Or that she was reduced to tears at Wimbledon 2019 in the face of the repetitive questions that she talked about in her statement last week?

Jonathan Liew in his brilliant piece for The Guardian yesterday reminded us how a 17-year-old Maria Sharapova was once asked, "You’re a pin-up now, especially in England. Is that good? Do you enjoy that?". Let me repeat: Sharapova was SEVENTEEN and she was asked whether she enjoyed being a pin-up girl.

At the recent Miami Open, Amanda Anisimova was asked whether her father's death - which happened more than a year ago - was still affecting her tennis (Anisimova declined to answer). Then there was this legendary press conference with Johanna Konta, which really doesn't need any explanation:

There are many more examples of press conferences where players were asked awkward, unnecessary or plain rude questions. But instead of taking a look at themselves for a possible problem in the way they go about things, journalists are still bemoaning how everyone is shitting on the press.

The tone-deafness of it all is truly mind-boggling. Here we have a person - and a world-class athlete at that - who has brought up an issue that might be affecting the mental health of a number of players. But rather than recognize the issue and look for ways to address it, everyone is busy extolling the virtues of press conferences and slamming Naomi Osaka for not doing her job.

To reiterate, does it have to be her job? Tennis as a sport needed press conferences a few years ago, in order to widen its reach and propel its growth. But in the social media age, if pressers were made non-mandatory for, say, players who have lost, would it make much of a difference? If a tournament gets 10 press conferences a day instead of 20, would it really dent its reach?

Most tennis players get into the sport because they feel they have the athletic ability to compete on the big stage. They believe they have the touch, feel and strength to make a career out of a physically demanding exercise. Should they be stopped from doing so if they don't also have public speaking skills to go with that?

Imagine a kid going up to their parent and saying, "I love hitting the ball with the racket, I want to do this all the time", only to be told in response "You are too shy around people, you won't be able to do your job if you take up tennis as a career."

We may not realize it now, but Naomi Osaka's stance will likely help change things for the better

Naomi Osaka at the 2021 Australian Open
Naomi Osaka at the 2021 Australian Open

On the face of it, Naomi Osaka has lost more than she has gained from this entire episode.

She has generated an army of haters on social media, earned a sharp rebuke from the biggest governing bodies in the sport, and been forced to withdraw from a Grand Slam. The Japanese could possibly go underground for a few weeks too; for a shy and introverted person, dealing with all this negative attention has to be intensely uncomfortable.

But while she may have lost the battle, there's reason to believe she might eventually win the war. Naomi Osaka did mention in her statement that she wanted to work with the organizers on how to make things better "when the time is right", and I have very little doubt that she will raise the issue again in the future.

The press conference will likely always be a divisive matter, but it's no longer something that can be accepted as law without question. To be clear, Naomi Osaka never called for pressers to be abolished; she boycotted them for one tournament, in the hope that it would lead to some sort of dialogue.

And you can bet that there will be a dialogue on it sooner or later. Sure, so far no player has expressed support for Naomi Osaka's stance (except perhaps Serena Williams in an oblique way). But there are likely several who haven't spoken out yet and who would welcome a change in the press conference model; this incident could open up a channel of conversation for that.

There are positives in other areas too, aside from the underlying press conference issue. Naomi Osaka's initial statement was, by her own admission, a little mistimed (and possibly even incorrectly worded). But there are a couple of lessons - for us, rather than her - to be learned from the way everything has unfolded since.

For one thing, the next time someone highlights mental health as a cause for a certain action, we shouldn't automatically cast doubt on the genuineness of the problem.

When Osaka first declared she was trying to safeguard her mental health, not a single person that mattered bothered to find out what exactly her issue was. They were all either "Oh she probably has her reasons, but pressers are important" or "I respect her decision, but I feel media obligations are a part of the job".

Maybe next time they should try finding out more before commenting? The fact that all those people are looking so insensitive right now hopefully serves as a lesson to do better next time.

There's also the larger conversation about how people dealing with mental health issues struggle to communicate their problems to the world, and whether anything can be done to help ease that burden. As some have pointed out, a person suffering from depression finds it tough to speak their mind unless asked about it specifically.

Naomi Osaka's first statement may have been flawed, but can we really blame her for trying to hide her condition? It's not easy to face your acquaintances - let alone the whole world, as it is in Osaka's case - after you've admitted to having inner demons that you have no idea how to deal with.

The fact that the 23-year-old managed to eventually open her heart out, despite having already seen the negativity being directed her way, deserves the highest praise. And maybe it should also make us think twice before accusing anyone of trivializing mental health in the future.

The haters and trolls, of course, will not think twice about any such thing. They will continue to bash her for creating "unnecessary drama", or for supposedly trying to ensure she gets only praise and no criticism from the media. And that's just the sad reality of the world that Naomi Osaka has to live in.

There are monsters everywhere, Naomi. I wish I could tell you they would go away if you didn't look under the bed.


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Edited by Musab Abid
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