Give Osaka the space she needs

Organizers need to be more sensitive to the pressures of professional athletes.



June 1, 2021 - 9:34 AM

Naomi Osaka of Japan (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images/TNS)

It is outrageous that the French Open should lead the way in telling one of the world’s brightest young tennis stars, Naomi Osaka, that she faces defaults — in other words, she will be thrown out of the Slams — if she refuses to engage with the press. While organizers fear a precedent being set, and other players sidling out of media commitments, it’s unfair to punish Osaka only to set an example, after she has cited mental health concerns. John McEnroe got away with insulting the chair, and Novak Djokovic with his antics.

In 2019 after losing the first round at Wimbledon, Osaka was asked whether her two Grand Slam titles were “too much success, too early.” It seemed like a question aimed at some impostor who had run away with the US Open and Australian Open, not a trailblazer from Japan. Osaka excused herself from the press conference room and candidly said that she might need to cry. Young champions can have uneasy relationships with both winning and losing that aggravate mental health flare-ups. If questions about her not winning every title irritate her, then the precocious talent deserves patience from the tennis fraternity.

That Osaka is extremely articulate and has taken a stand on myriad issues with integrity, opens her up to being targeted by the “Stick to Sport” brigade. Sport is teeming with famous figures who are inauthentic and glibly parrot lines and lies dictated by their agents, as well as cheats who game the system — both make sport seem contrived and fake. It is true, too, that it’ll be difficult for organizers to accurately determine who’s avoiding media owing to mental health issues and who’s shirking legitimate press questions. So while the organizers need to be more sensitive to the pressures of professional sportspersons, players need to be honest in honoring their media commitments. And if getting this balance right means rewriting the contracts, so be it.

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