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Towards the end of last season, not long after players had returned from lockdown, the Frenchman Gaël Monfils continued to embrace his newfound hobby on the streaming website Twitch. After retiring from a match in October, he decided to skip his mandatory post-match press duties in favour of inviting French journalists to conduct the press conference online for his fans.
The journalists were left with a choice – attend the press conference on terms dictated by Monfils or potentially miss out. In the end, those who did attend discussed with him his biggest news of the year: he was shutting down his season.
On Wednesday, Naomi Osaka announced on social media that she would not be attending press conferences during the French Open. Her decision for not attending her tour-mandated press conference was markedly different to Monfils’s. She cited the mental health effects of her press interactions: “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.”
Billie Jean King’s generation tirelessly courted the media as they promoted women’s tennis. Yet as the sport has professionalised those close relations eventually became sterile interactions in press conferences. The shift continues and, with the rise of social media, prominent athletes now recognise the power they hold, the direct access they have to their fans, and that they no longer need the media.
The environment in the tennis press is unique. It is a global sport that is relevant for eight weeks of grand slam competition each year but relatively niche for the rest. There is a core of international tennis reporters from around the world and tournaments also absorb local journalists. It means that any given press conference includes a vast array of different characters from different countries and with different motivations when they ask a question.
The results are not always pretty. The last time Wimbledon was held, in 2019, British No 1 Johanna Konta’s losing press conference became an even bigger story than her stellar run to the quarter-final when she said a male journalist was patronising her. During one of the first events after the hiatus, one journalist appeared on a Zoom press conference inexplicably shirtless. Few sports will ever be able to boast an interview question as horrific as when Serena Williams, at the 2018 French Open, was asked if she was ever intimidated by Maria Sharapova. “I had the opportunity to interview Donald Trump on his LA golf course,” said the male journalist. “He said that Maria’s shoulders were incredibly alluring and then he came up with this incredible analysis: that you were intimidated by her supermodel good looks.”
The greatest source of friction in Osaka’s press conferences has historically been her win over Williams at the 2018 US Open. Osaka clearly knew nothing about Williams’s game penalty during the match, yet it was all anyone could ask her for weeks after her first slam title. Four months later, after she won the Australian Open, she was understandably irritated by the first question of her winning press conference. “Apparently you’re unable to win a slam without some drama,” said a male journalist. Years on, there is still a tendency to pit Williams and Osaka against each other. It is not difficult to see where resentment may fester.
What is interesting is Osaka’s stated reason for not attending press conferences is actually due to questions related to her matches. “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 that doubt me,” she wrote. Press conferences are often not enjoyable for athletes and speaking to a player after losses and devastating moments requires sensitivity and tact that is sometimes lacking. But ultimately, journalists asking questions about difficult subjects are not trying to sabotage her.
There has been little reason to doubt Osaka over the past year considering she has won the last two slams she entered. However, she has recently struggled on clay, losing in the second round of the Madrid Open and in her first match at the Italian Open. Her ability on the surface has been a constant point of discussion in recent weeks and it will likely be similar on grass, where she also has limited experience. Meanwhile, tension will continue to rise as the Olympics approaches. By not speaking with the press, it rather seems like she is protecting herself from the pressure to come.
Ultimately Osaka is free to do what she likes. But it is a shame. While some players understandably protect themselves by offering as little as possible, she is one of the more forthcoming and insightful speakers and her rapport with the media is better than most. The last time she did suffer a devastating major loss, her 2020 Australian Open third-round defeat to Coco Gauff, the press conference was handled well by all and she was endearing and emotionally mature in defeat. When her press conferences flashed up on ESPN, people learned more about her.
They won’t this year. The group most affected are her national Japanese media, with who she has always seemed to interact with mutual respect. The question is whether Roland Garros officials will barrage their second seed with fines or else grant her the opportunity to skip press conferences, opening a route for others to follow.