Saturday, May 29, 2021

Commentary: Toughen up, Naomi, and act professionally

Naomi Osaka said she won't "subject myself to people that doubt me."
2019 photo by Mal Taam
   Three years ago, Serena Williams acted like a prima donna in the turbulent U.S. Open final against 20-year-old Naomi Osaka.
   Now it's Osaka's turn.
   The second-ranked Osaka announced Wednesday that she will not attend her required post-match news conferences during the French Open, which begins Sunday.
   "I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes (sic) mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one," Osaka, who made her WTA main-draw debut at 16 at Stanford in 2014, wrote in a statement posted to her social media accounts. "We're often sat there and asked questions that we've been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I'm just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me. ... "
    Instead, Osaka will pay a fine of up to $20,000 for each absence. Unlike most players, Osaka can easily afford it. The four-time Grand Slam singles champion from Japan reportedly has earned $55.2 million in the last 12 months, a record for a female athlete. An estimated $50 million comes from endorsements.
   The media, of course, are largely responsible for that.
   Let's be honest. "Mental health" is an emotionally charged term designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction. Depression, anxiety, paranoia and schizophrenia are mental illnesses; doubt is not. 
   Recently retired Nicole Gibbs (Stanford, 2011-13) suffered from depression yet thoughtfully answered reporters' questions win or lose. 
   Like Osaka, Rafael Nadal has doubts. A lot of them. But they fuel him.
   In a "60 Minutes" interview in 2019, Nadal said doubt is "good for me, because then I feel alert. Because tennis is a sport where things can change very quickly. That's the great beauty of our sport."
   Osaka can handle the pressure of facing match points and playing in Grand Slam finals, but post-match news conferences are traumatic? OK, she's shy. So am I, but I've managed to conduct countless interviews during my 42-year journalism career. The ones with losers of a match are the hardest because the players are generally in a bad mood. But it's part of the job.
   What questions are so painful for Osaka? She didn't say. I've attended hundreds of tennis news conferences, and reporters overwhelmingly handle players with kid gloves, especially after losses. They have sympathy, many are hero worshippers, and nobody wants to be berated in public by a testy loser — or winner, for that matter.
   Are there a lot of stupid questions in post-match news conferences? Absolutely. But it's not the media's job to protect players' fragile psyches. If they're depressed or anxious, they should seek treatment, take time off or find a less stressful career.
   Nor did Osaka mention the safeguards built into news conferences:
   —Players do not immediately go from the court to the press room — unless they want to get it over with. There is a cooling-off period, which players, seemingly oblivious to reporters' deadlines, routinely abuse by waiting an hour or more to appear.
   —Players can decline — preferably politely — to answer specific questions. Apparently, though, the questions alone — whatever they are — create doubts in players' minds, according to Osaka. Maybe they need to toughen up.
   —Distraught players can and do walk out of news conferences, and moderators can and do cut off sessions at will. That's not to say either is necessarily appropriate. 
   —Anyone asking inappropriate questions or being abusive can be removed or banned. This is exceedingly rare.
   Osaka goes on to write: "I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they're down and I don't understand the reasoning behind it."
   Let me help you, Naomi. The winner's perspective is only half the story. News conferences help reporters give fans insight into matches and players, increasing exposure and therefore prize money.
   Everyone has a story to tell. People, not machines, play matches. Few fans, if any, would read stories only about forehands, backhands and service breaks.
   Nothing is classier or more professional than a player like Gibbs who candidly discusses his or her losses as well as victories. 

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