Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 3, 2021

The Quiet Yet Awesome Power Of Naomi Osaka

It will be another ten days before winners are crowned on the red clay of Roland Garros.  The French Open, having returned to its familiar place in the rota of tennis Grand Slams and almost its regular spot on the calendar after moving to October and becoming the last of only three major tournaments played in 2020 thanks to the pandemic, is just now entering its first weekend.  As this is written we have no idea if the women’s and men’s draws will produce familiar champions or unexpected winners.  But we do know for certain this year’s titlist on the women’s side will not be Naomi Osaka.  In guaranteeing that result by withdrawing from the French on Monday, the 23-year-old four-time major champion has once again done what she seems to do so extraordinarily well and with less effort than she expends in a straight set rout, namely send the predominantly white male leaders of her sport reeling even while forcing both tennis, a game strongly associated with privilege, and the sports world at large, to confront a topic far too many people would prefer to avoid.

The drama began a week ago, when Osaka announced via social media that she would not participate in the formal press conferences that are mandatory for all players at tournaments – though in reality far more time-consuming and intrusive for a handful of top stars like Osaka.  In her post she acknowledged she would be fined for doing so, expressing the hope that the money would “go to a mental health charity,” after making it clear that her decision stemmed from a belief that the sessions negatively impacted the mental health of athletes by “bringing doubt into our minds” or “kicking a person while they’re down.” 

On Sunday, after a 6-4, 7-6 opening match victory, Osaka made good on her promise.  The response however, was not merely a fine of $15,000 – no indication of how the money will be used – but the release of a letter signed by the heads of all four Grand Slam tournaments, threatening Osaka with disqualification from all the tennis majors.  Less than 24 hours later Osaka was gone, announcing her withdrawal on Instagram.  In an achingly candid post, she revealed that she had “suffered long bouts of depression” since her first major victory at the 2018 U.S. Open, spoke of her severe social anxiety and explained that her original announcement was grounded in a desire to focus on self-care in the intense environment of the year’s second Grand Slam. The juxtaposition of the verbal bludgeoning from the tennis barons with the candid revelations of a young woman barely more than three years removed from her first ever professional victory at the 2018 Indian Wells Open was breathtakingly stark; a contrast that did the lords of Osaka’s sport no favors.

Two lessons stand out.  The first is that it is advisable – perhaps understandably so – to read with caution coverage of an event in which the press itself is a participant.  While there were certainly some dissenting voices, mostly belonging to younger, female sports journalists, the initial media reaction to Osaka’s declaration to skip press conferences during the tournament was harsh.  Multiple stories pointed out that the formal question-and-answer sessions are more important in tennis than in sports like baseball, basketball or hockey (to pick three that are currently ongoing), because there is no long season of game after game, in which reporters interact in locker rooms daily with those they are covering.  Going beyond that, more than a few characterized Osaka as a prima donna trying to use her celebrity to either avoid an undesirable chore or, far worse, gain an advantage – exactly how or what was never adequately defined – over her competition.

There is an element of truth in the first point, but all but the laziest of reporters have acknowledged that especially during the pandemic, the virtual press conferences in place at most tournaments are generally stilted gatherings that rarely result in hard news.  Perhaps even the scribes most content to do nothing more than wait for their allotted question time would cringe at the countless YouTube videos of moronic or inappropriate queries being put to players.  And more than a few of those quick to assail Osaka as some would-be starlet were hastily rewriting their stories after her withdrawal announcement. 

Yet even as they did so, one cannot ignore the reality of the gender and racial makeup of those whose initial reaction was to carp.  Former ESPN reporter Jemele Hill pointed out in The Atlantic that when she wrote for the Orlando Sentinel in 2005, she was the sole black female sports columnist writing for a North American daily newspaper.  A decade and a half later, not much has changed.  In its latest survey, the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Diversity and Equity in Sports found that 85% of sports editors, 82% of columnists, and 80% of reporters are white.   

The second lesson is more profound, for it reflects a truth not just about tennis, but about all our games.  One can imagine that when the four heads of the Grand Slam tournaments signed their joint letter, they truly imagined that one more upstart player would rapidly be brought to heel.  But the power in sports has shifted, and there is no going back.  It has been less than half a century since Marvin Miller brought down baseball’s reserve clause, the rule that effectively made a player the property of his team, finishing the work that Curt Flood began.  An eyeblink in the grand scheme, yet today in all our games it is increasingly the players who hold the power, and the accelerating shift of how fans obtain information has contributed greatly to that change.

We are no longer dependent on a team’s media staff, or the local sports page.  Now through social media we connect to players directly, or at least to what they want us to see and hear, which while certainly a construct, is no more so than what teams and leagues have always done.  When the tennis barons issued their edict, it was duly reported across the sports world.  That included ESPN, the cable network that paid $70 million to the USTA for full coverage of last year’s U.S. Open.  Its broadcast of Osaka’s triumph in the women’s final garnered the network 2.15 million viewers.  That’s an impressive number, but still about 200,000 less than the number of people who follow Osaka’s Instagram account, which she set up for free.  All of them received her statement on Monday within a few seconds of it being posted, and more than a third of them promptly shared it with all their followers.  Scores of other sports figures followed by voicing their support on various apps. 

A countless number of those subsequent posts stressed the importance of addressing the issue of mental health.  Even the tennis leaders, trying to recover from their unforced error, joined the chorus.  It brought to mind the scene at the ceremony following Osaka’s win in Queens last year.  In an almost empty Arthur Ashe Stadium, but to all those watching on ESPN, Osaka was interviewed by Tom Rinaldi, who noted that at each of her matches she had worn a mask with the name of a black victim of a police shooting.  “What was the message you wanted to send?” he asked.  “Well, what was the message you got?” Osaka replied, adding “I feel like the point is to make people start talking.”  She won’t lift the trophy at this year’s French Open, but once again, Naomi Osaka has gotten everyone talking, even at the price of making some people uncomfortable.  Is there any doubt that she has already won?


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