Naomi Osaka's comms weren't perfect but tennis authorities showed lack of empathy

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka may have faulted with her candid initial comms about not wanting to take part in interviews at Roland Garros this week, but the return of serve by the sport's authorities lacked empathy over an issue that deserves greater attention.

Naomi Osaka is interviewed on court following her first-round victory at the French Open. She would subsequently withdraw from the tournament citing mental health concerns (Photos: Getty Images)
Naomi Osaka is interviewed on court following her first-round victory at the French Open. She would subsequently withdraw from the tournament citing mental health concerns (Photos: Getty Images)

When Naomi Osaka made her first statement announcing her decision not to speak to the media during the French Open, it prompted outrage from journalists and others involved in sporting competition.

Her statement on social media, although citing mental health, was poorly worded and appeared to lack understanding of the pressure journalists are under.

Owned-media channels are controlled, by their very definition, by those they represent, and can often be banal and sterile in their content, or poorly written.

Press conferences, on the other hand, give journalists the opportunity to delve deeper into the story, beyond the scoring of points, of victory and defeat, and gain insights into the emotions, the drive and the level of performance elite athletes so often attain, and which set them apart from the rest of us.

Event organisers, broadcasters and sponsors – both of the events and of the players themselves – pay millions to be associated with the top players of the top sports, and tennis is no different.

The point has been made that many post-match press conferences are an exercise in going through the motions, but Osaka would have been better advised to have spoken directly with the authorities to explain her situation before the tournament began.

By relying on her own statement, she inadvertently cast aspersions on the WTA and the tennis family and her claims that it was “nothing personal” were less than convincing.

Why did her agent not make direct contact with the authorities instead of allowing her to simply make a statement on social media; to find a compromise that could have suited all parties?

To her credit, Osaka later admitted that her “timing was not ideal” and her “message could have been clearer”.

Reports later accused her of being a “princess”, “immature” and “precocious”, which will have done nothing to endear her to the fourth estate.

At that point, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) and tennis authorities, having seemingly made little effort to communicate with Osaka directly, announced that she had been fined and that she risked expulsion if she continued to ignore her media obligations.

The lack of empathy and compassion in their wording was stark, to say the least.

Changing the narrative

Osaka’s second statement, confirming her decision to withdraw from the French Open, changed the narrative entirely.

She explained in far greater detail how she had suffered with mental health issues since 2018 and that she now needed to take time away from the court and competitive tennis.

That she admitted making the decision unilaterally and felt the need to apologise to organisers for the unexpected announcement underlined her recognition that things could have been handled differently.

But she spoke of continued nerves, anxiety and introversion and added that “when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans”.

That in itself shines a bright light on the pressure professional sports people are under, and while the rewards can be high for those at the top of their game, they are human too and suffer the same vulnerabilities as the rest of us.

How ironic that FFT President Gilles Moretton made a statement in French and English and himself walked off without answering further questions from the media.

His claims that player welfare remained a priority rang very hollow in light of the heavy-handed response to Osaka’s initial struggles when she first played in this year’s French Open.

Needless to say, the four Grand Slams later praised Osaka for sharing her challenges and vowed to improve conditions for players.

And, tellingly, Osaka’s sponsors – which include Nissin Foods, Nike, Nissan, TAG Heuer and Mastercard – all expressed their solidarity with Osaka, with the latter saying: “Naomi Osaka's decision reminds us all how important it is to prioritise personal health and wellbeing.”

That statement in itself showed how far the pendulum has swung and positioned Osaka firmly not as a “princess” but as a pioneer, brave enough to speak out on the challenges that face us all.

David Alexander is the managing director of sports PR agency Calacus

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