It’s the modern day equivalent of the Roman Empire’s gladiatorial shows. After playing for several hours, often in hot and humid conditions, with their emotional reserves ebbing and stress levels sky rocketing, tennis stars enter the media’s ice cold inner sanctum – the post-match press conference.
And Naomi Osaka has had enough. She has faced down countless opponents on her stratospheric rise to the top of tennis, but this week the world’s No. 2 put down her racket and walked away from the probing and prodding of the press.
Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the French Open, rather than participate in media conferences at Roland Garros, has sparked a wider debate about the culture of post-match briefings and their impact on athletes’ mental health.
Such media conferences are a “vulture’s pit,” said Kris Soutar a consultant for Tennis Scotland and the Judy Murray Foundation, founded by the mother of Andy Murray, a player who has talked openly about how the mental toll of elite sport has affected him.
These often male-dominated press conferences are hugely intimidating for the losing player, Soutar told CNN. “They are probed for reasons why they lost, and journalists looking for their own little pieces of dirt,” he said.
It’s a daunting prospect for any athlete, let alone Osaka, who admitted on Twitter she was “not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media.”
So the four-time major winner took the dramatic decision to eschew news conferences altogether, citing mental health reasons, with the hope that any fines incurred would go to a mental health charity.
In response, organizers fined Osaka $15,000 and threatened expulsion. Osaka in turn pulled out of the tournament, saying on Twitter that she hoped “everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.”
The 23-year-old added that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since winning her first grand slam title in 2018.
After Osaka’s decision to opt out of media duties, the French Open posted a tweet – which it has since deleted – with photos of Rafael Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff engaging in media duties with the caption: “They understood the assignment.”
That response was “cold” and a “missed opportunity” to “be pioneering” and find solutions to mental health issues within the sport, said Soutar.
Competing in the era of Covid
Tennis has been one of the first professional sports to emerge from the shadows of Covid lockdowns worldwide.
But with more pressing matters at hand – notably economic – mental health has “not been anywhere near the top of the tour’s agenda,” according to Rodney Rapson, co-owner of the Base Tennis Academy near Frankfurt, Germany.
“The industry as a whole is suffering financially, through cancellations, sponsorship, everything has taken a hit,” Rapson said of the impact of Covid on the sport.
Meanwhile, Covid restrictions have exacerbated the stresses for traveling tennis pros. Before players even hit the court, there’s a seemingly endless list of testing, travel restrictions, quarantining and social bubbles to adhere to, said Daria Abramowicz, sports psychologist to Polish player, Iga Swiatek.
This tightly restricted environment “really affects relationships, it affects stress levels, it affects emotional well being in general,” according to Abramowicz.
She added that “we’ve never seen this much retirement, withdrawals from tournament, injuries, tension,” which Abramowicz put down to a “Covid effect” on tennis.
Abramowicz hopes the Osaka’s withdrawal could be a “game changer” for discussions about mental health in sport.
“There is this stereotype that an athlete is a kind of gladiator, a kind of hero,” Abramowicz told CNN.
“That they are comfortable being out of their comfort zones. And it makes it pretty much impossible for athletes not to be OK.”
Osaka’s decision to turn her back on press conferences has infuriated some media commentators.
British broadcaster Piers Morgan called the tennis player a “petulant little madam.” And journalist Will Swanton wrote in the Australian: “The immaturity, preciousness and hypocrisy of Naomi Osaka leaves me speechless.”
Meanwhile, 23-time grand slam champion Serena Williams sympathized with Osaka, telling a post-match media conference: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in those positions.”
Former tennis great Billie Jean King trod a more delicate line, tweeting: “The media still play an important role in the telling of our story.”
But the media conference is a different beast to King’s days, say experts, pointing to the way social media now offered players a direct line of communication with fans.
“So it kind of seems redundant to have a post-match interview in front of a press room where the players, especially if they’ve lost, are being asked really arbitrary questions which everybody knows the answer to,” said Rapson, who added: “The players get frustrated very quickly.”
These conferences come straight after a match where players are “at the peak of their cognitive and emotional function, and the stress level is sometimes skyrocketing,” said Abramowicz.
And “when there’s this obligation to go and speak about it, not all players are well equipped for it.”
Young players are thrown into the international spotlight barely prepared for the scrutiny both in the conference room and online, say experts.
Rapson also questioned whether the authorities are doing enough to protect the players’ mental health given the abuse they often receive online.
“Technology is advancing a lot faster than the cultural shifts of the people that run the sport,” said Rapson, adding that there was a “massive disconnect between the people who are sitting on the board of these governing bodies, and the reality of how things like social media impact young people.”
Now, by removing herself from the media spotlight, Osaka has instead shone on a light on these very pressures.