TTowards the end of last season, shortly after players returned from lockdown, Frenchman Gaël Monfils continued to embrace his new hobby on streaming site Twitch. After retiring from a match in October, he decided to relinquish his mandatory post-match press duties to invite French journalists to host the press conference online for his fans.
Journalists had the choice: attend the press conference under the conditions dictated by Monfils or potentially miss. In the end, those in attendance discussed with him his biggest news of the year: he was ending his season.
On Wednesday, Naomi Osaka announced on social media that she would not attend press conferences during the French Open. His decision not to attend his tour-mandated press conference was markedly different from Monfils’s. She cited the mental health effects of her interactions with the press: “I have often felt that people have no respect for the mental health of athletes and that rings very true every time I see a conference. press release or that I participate.
Billie Jean King’s generation has tirelessly courted the media by promoting women’s tennis. Yet, as the sport became more professional, these close relationships eventually turned into fruitless interactions at press conferences. The change continues and with the rise of social media, top athletes now recognize the power they have, the direct access they have to their fans and no longer need the media. .
The environment in the tennis press is unique. It’s a global sport that’s relevant for eight weeks of Grand Slam competition each year, but relatively niche for the rest. There is a core of international tennis journalists from all over the world and the tournaments absorb local journalists as well. This means that a given press conference includes a wide range of different characters from different countries and with different motivations when asking a question.
The results are not always beautiful. The last time Wimbledon was held, in 2019, Britain’s No.1 Johanna Konta’s losing press conference became an even bigger story than her meteoric run to the quarter-finals when she said a male journalist condescended to her. In one of the first events after the break, a reporter appeared at an inexplicably shirtless Zoom press conference. Few sports can boast of such a gruesome interview question as when Serena Williams, at the 2018 French Open, was asked if she had ever been intimidated by Maria Sharapova. “I had the opportunity to interview Donald Trump at his Los Angeles golf course,” the reporter said. “He said that Maria’s shoulders were incredibly attractive, and then he came up with this incredible analysis: that you were intimidated by her beauty as a model.
The biggest source of friction in Osaka’s press conferences has always been his victory over Williams at the 2018 US Open. Osaka clearly knew nothing about Williams’ match penalty during the match, but that was it. that anyone could ask of him for weeks after his first slam title. Four months later, after winning the Australian Open, she was understandably irritated by the first question of her winning press conference. “Apparently you can’t win a slam without drama,” one reporter said. Years later, there is still a tendency to pit Williams and Osaka against each other. It’s not hard to see where resentment can escalate.
What’s interesting is that the reason Osaka cites for not attending press conferences is actually due to issues related to their matches. “We often sit there and ask questions that cause doubt and I just won’t submit to people who doubt me,” she wrote. Press conferences are often uncomfortable for athletes, and speaking to a player after losses and devastating moments requires a sensitivity and tact that is sometimes lacking. But in the end, journalists who ask questions on difficult topics don’t try to sabotage it.
There is little reason to doubt Osaka over the past year given that she has won the last two slams in which she has competed. However, she recently struggled on clay, losing in the second round of the Madrid Open and in her debut match at the Italian Open. Her ability on the surface has been a constant talking point over the past few weeks and it will likely be the same on grass, where she also has limited experience. Meanwhile, the tension will continue to increase as the Olympics approach. By not speaking with the press, one has the impression rather that they are protecting themselves from the pressure to come.
Ultimately, Osaka is free to do whatever she likes. But it’s a shame. While some players naturally protect themselves by offering as little as possible, she is one of the most open and insightful speakers and her rapport with the media is better than most. The last time she suffered a devastating major loss, her Australian Open 2020 third round loss to Coco Gauff, the press conference was handled well by all and she was endearing and emotionally mature in the loss. . When her press conferences broke on ESPN, people learned more about her.
They won’t do it this year. The group most affected are her Japanese national media, with which she always seemed to interact with mutual respect. The question is whether Roland Garros officials will bar their second seed with fines or give him the option to skip press conferences, thus opening a way for others.