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As the controversy around Naomi Osaka’s press-conference boycott grew, Osaka’s sister Mari tried to explain the thinking behind the decision – only to later retract her comments with the words “I’m sorry Naomi I probably made the situation worse.”
Osaka has been threatened with a default from Roland Garros – and suspension from future grand slams – if she does not climb down from her stand, which she seems to have taken with no warning or consultation, as far as the tennis authorities are concerned.
When the four grand-slam events united on Sunday to put out a hardline statement, Osaka replied with a one-line tweet: “anger is a lack of understanding. change makes people uncomfortable”.
Then Mari – who herself played professional tennis with limited success before retiring in March – entered the debate in a Reddit post.
"Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she's bad at clay,” said Mari Osaka, who is 25. “At every press conference she's told she has a bad record on clay. When she lost in Rome r1 [Round 1] she was not ok mentally. Her confidence was completely shattered and I think that everyone's remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay.”
The post then went on add that “Her solution was to block everything out. No talking to people who is going to put doubt in her mind. She's protecting her mind hence why it's called mental health. So many people are picky on this term thinking you need to have depression or have some sort of disorder to be able to use the term mental health.”
After Mari had made her post, she then received multiple replies suggesting that her younger sister’s position was a misuse of the term “mental health” in order to seek a competitive advantage.
She responded by deleting it and putting up another post that said “Ok so I f---ed up. My words are coming across so horribly to a lot of people who think taking care of mental health is strategic. I didn't emphasise the fact that Naomi is dealing with a ton of s--- and honestly fighting for the care of mental health in my post so now a lot of people are taking it as ‘She doesn't want to hear criticism.’”
Osaka’s experienced Belgian coach Wim Fissette also joined the conversation on Monday. Speaking to German magazine Der Spiegel, Fissette said “I don't think this announcement is about her personally. Naomi has the opportunity to use her status to address problems, to initiate things, and she wants to use that.
"In the USA, the issue of athletes wanting more freedom in their dealings with the press is very topical right now. They simply don't want to be threatened with punishments if they don't feel well for a day or two. Naomi knows that it's important to talk to the press. She doesn't want to change things for herself alone. It's a matter of principle for her: she wants to bring about change here, too.”
This is a complex issue, but Osaka’s stand has not been helped by her lack of engagement. In the statement released by the grand-slam events on Sunday, they said that “the Roland Garros teams asked [Osaka] to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site.” They received no response.
It is also worth mentioning that, after her first-round loss in Rome to Jessica Pegula, Osaka was not requested for interview and thus did not have to give a press conference. She did answer questions on the eve of the match, but these were hardly hostile. They included enquiries about her Laureus Award for Sportswoman of the Year, her role as one of the new faces of Louis Vuitton and what co-chairing the Met Gala with Anna Wintour was likely to entail.