Naomi Osaka isn’t just a great tennis player. She is a great actor. I saw her giving one of her finest off-court performances when I covered the Brisbane International tournament last year. The post-match media conferences were light-hearted affa*rs.
The organisers placed an oversized tennis ball – about the size of a basketball – on the top table, and the player being interviewed would throw it to the reporter who put their hand up to ask the first question.
That reporter would then throw it to the one who asked the second question, and so on, for the duration of the conference.
A lasting memory of that week was the look of glee on the face of Naomi Osaka, 23, as she pic*ed up the giant ball and looked around the room for her target, and the in*ecti!us gi-ggle as she threw it.
Her responses to the questions thrown back at her were equally play-ful. She came acr-oss as sweet, funny, and having the time of her life.
Little did I know the pa** that she was concealing behind that beaming smile as she end-ured the professional tennis version of the Spanish Inquisition at the hands of the ne!at!ve, nit-picking media.
She certainly hid it well. Of all the tennis players I have witnessed in ac-tion at media conferences I would rate her as amongst the most relaxed and comfortable I’ve seen.
And trust me, I’ve seen plenty of them. Now, I get that facing the press after a match isn’t the most appealing part of the job.
Naomi was right with what she said initially when announcing her boycott of the media at the French Open – some of the questions they ask are repeti!ive, they can focus on ne*ati*e aspects, and some are downright stup-id – but up until now, everyone has coped in their own way.
I remember at the 2015 French Open a reporter asked Novak Djokovic: ‘Novak, I read in your book what you eat before a match. If I eat the same thing, will I become a better tennis player?’
Djokovic just laughed and dropp-ed his head down on the table. I’ve seen Serena Williams so shat-tered after being bundled out in the third round of Wimbledon in 2014 that she sl*mped in her chair, barely able to answer reporters’ questions.
At the same tournament, defending champion Andy Murray was be-at-en in the quarterfinals and answered every question thou-ghtfully and honestly. He might not have won the tournament, but he went out a winner in the eyes of the press.
Nick Kyrgios can be like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re going to get: one minute surly, the next expansive, but never ever bo!ing.
I’ve seen him berate a reporter with ‘Stu-pid question … next’ or b*us* off another with, ‘you’ve already asked two, give someone else a go.’
Rafael Nadal will always praise his opponent in def-eat and, for me anyway, a Bernard Tomic media conference was always a must-see. Like Jim Carrey in Liar Liar he couldn’t help himself. He had to tell the truth as he saw it, and it was always great copy.
They were all different. Some brilliant, some am*si!g, some dull, but the point is, win or lose they all turned up to face the media. They knew that the tournament organisers demanded it, their sponsors expected it, and the fans enjoyed it. Plus it came with the pay-cheque.
So why did Naomi Osaka refuse to do it? Well, according to her, it was a mental health i!s*e.
Yeah, maybe. If she says so. She’s certainly not the first player to suffer anxiety or depr-ession on the tour. Kyrgios, Tomic, Murray, Pat Cash, Jelena Dokic and many others have spoken of their st*ug!les.
But why now, on the eve of the biggest clay-court tournament in the world, rather than at last week’s event, or the one before?
And why, if, as she now says, her main aim was to hi!hli*ht the sho*tcomings of the game’s administrators, did she take aim at the pr-ess rather than go straight to the source of her a*gst?
Particularly as she has been the darling of the tennis media from the day she bu-rst onto the scene by winning the US Open in 2018 and has ha!dly been asked a ha*d question since.
At the r*** of sounding cynical, perhaps the answer lies in the since-deleted message of support posted by her older sister Mari who gave her insider’s version of the real reason for the bo-yc-ott.
‘Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad at clay,’ she wrote. ‘At every press conference she’s told she has a bad record on clay.
‘When she lo*t on clay at Rome in round 1, she was not OK mentally. Her confidence was completely shatt-ered and I think that everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay.
‘This isn’t true and she knows that in order to do well and have a sh** at winning Roland Garros she will have to believe that she can.’
Obviously what Mari posted did not align with the narrative that her little sister (and her little sister’s management team) is now trying to promote.
It was quickly taken down and a clu!sy back-flip posted in its place, but put together with something Naomi said in her first bo-yco-tt announcement, it does hold water.
‘We’re often sat there and asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people who doubt me,’ Naomi wrote.
So which was it Naomi? You were making a stand for the rights of all players whose mental health is being put into jeopardy by being for*ed to attend media conferences by a cruel administration, or you just wanted to give yourself the best chance of winning the French Open?
From the sisters’ own words it seems apparent that it was the latter, that the bo-yc-ott was nothing more than gamesmanship.
Trying to put herself into a self-imposed bubble of positivity where she wouldn’t be reminded of her sho*tcomings on clay, she attempted a calculated ploy that didn’t come off.
Certainly history would tell us that Naomi and her hand-lers are not averse to making st*ategi! decisions for the betterment of thems-elves.
Although she was born in Japan to a Haitian father and Japanese mother, she moved to the US with her parents and sister at the age of three.
It was only when they began to rise up the ranks of junior tennis in the US that the family decided that the girls should align thems-elves with their Japanese heritage and adopt their mother’s surname.
It has proved a hugely lucrative decision, with her becoming the most popular and marketable woman in sports-crazy Japan.
Last year she became the highest earning female athlete of all time, and rank-ed eighth of all athletes in endorsement earnings for the year with overall income of over US$50 million.
You’d think for that kind of money she’d be able to sit down with the press for 15 minutes after every match, but obviously not.
If you believe the statement she made after pu!li*g out of the French Open, she has taken a stand to hi*hli*ht the ‘outdated rules’ of tennis officialdom regarding me!tal health.
No doubt she will get pl-enty of support, if not from other players, then at least from people who like to support causes.
Or maybe she could have gone about it another way, and followed the example of world number one !sh Barty who, suff-ering mental health concerns early in her career, took a year off from the game to fish and play cricket and came back str*n*er and better than ever.
That way Naomi might be able to overcome her crippling anxiety about public speaking – and clay – and actually win at Roland Garros. And you can bet she’ll want to talk to the press then.