At the French Open, Naomi Osaka Seeks Comfort on Clay and No Interviews


PARIS — While different main gamers juggled follow and media commitments forward of the French Open, Naomi Osaka centered solely on follow this week.

She was on courtroom at Roland Garros early on Friday, hitting with the former No. 1 Angelique Kerber on the purple clay, the place Osaka doesn’t really feel solely comfortable. During breaks, she sat in a chair staring straight forward as her coach, Wim Fissette, crouched by her facet in dialog.

The second-seeded Osaka is tennis’s largest new star and now the highest-paid female athlete in the world, forward of Serena Williams. Osaka has gained 4 Grand Slam singles titles, two greater than some other lady since 2018. But the French Open, the solely Grand Slam event performed on clay, shall be a giant problem. She didn’t get previous the third spherical in 4 earlier appearances, and so she deliberate to strategy the occasion otherwise: Osaka just lately introduced that, to guard her psychological well being, she would not “do any press” during the tournament, which begins Sunday.

It stays unclear what her news-media abstention will entail. Osaka, who represents Japan and lives in the United States, is underneath contract with the Japanese broadcaster Wowow. Will she select to talk with that community and different broadcasters? Will she give post-match interviews on courtroom? Or will she merely select to skip the conventional post-match information convention designed to serve all kinds of shops?

Answers weren’t instantly forthcoming, and Stuart Duguid, her agent, declined to remark when requested for clarification. What is evident is that Osaka selected not to participate in the official media day on Friday, which made her the exception. The contributors included the girls’s No. 1, Ashleigh Barty; the reigning girls’s champion, Iga Swiatek; and the 13-time males’s champion, Rafael Nadal. Already an immovable object at Roland Garros, Nadal now has a everlasting presence after the unveiling this week of a metal statue of him ripping his trademark forehand.

Nadal and his fellow gamers addressed quite a few matters on Friday, and most have been requested about Osaka’s resolution. None criticized her selection, however all mentioned they’d take a distinct tack.

“As sports people, we need to be ready to accept the questions and try to produce an answer, no?” Nadal mentioned. “I understand her, but in the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally are traveling, who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We aren’t going to have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no?”

Nadal, who will flip 35 on Thursday, is a creature of behavior who started giving interviews as a preteen prodigy. The panorama has modified dramatically since he gained his first French Open title in 2005. Athletes now converse by means of social media, however the shock announcement from Osaka, 23, will not be all a few technology hole.

Barty, from Australia, is 25, and Swiatek, from Poland, is 19. Both are previous French Open champions, and each are massive stars of their house nations.

“In my opinion, press is kind of part of the job,” Barty mentioned. “We know what we sign up for as professional tennis players. I can’t really comment on what Naomi is feeling or her decisions.”

Worn down by expectations and the depth {of professional} tennis, Barty took an almost two-year break in her profession earlier than returning in 2016.

“At times, press conferences are hard, of course, but it’s also not something that bothers me,” she mentioned. “I’ve never had problems answering questions or being completely honest with you guys.”

In an announcement on Friday, the WTA emphasised how significantly it took the difficulty of psychological well being, but additionally pressured that media obligations are a part of the job.

“The WTA welcomes a dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches that can help support an athlete as they manage any concerns related to mental health, while also allowing us to deliver upon our responsibilities to the fans and public,” the assertion mentioned. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them the opportunity to share their perspective and tell their story.”

Swiatek, like the younger Canadian Bianca Andreescu, has prioritized the psychological facet of her recreation, utilizing sports activities psychology from an early age and hiring a performance psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, as a part of her workforce.

Swiatek mentioned on Friday that she didn’t assume collaborating in information conferences was tough or had affected her psychological well being.

“I feel that the media is really important as well because they are giving us, you are giving us, a platform to talk about our lives and our perspective,” she mentioned. “It’s also important, because not everybody is a professional athlete, and not everybody knows what we are dealing with on court. It’s good to speak about that. We have like two ways to do that: media and social media. It’s good to use both of these platforms and to educate people.”

What social media lacks — except an athlete chooses to usually reply questions from followers — is dialogue.

Tennis information conferences aren’t what they was once. They are typically shorter and a lot lighter on inquiries about techniques, approach and the match that simply completed. But they continue to be a possibility for journalists to ask questions on any topic. They additionally enable an opportunity for many who report usually about tennis to develop a rapport with the athletes and higher perceive their personalities, psyches and, as Swiatek neatly alluded to, their motivations and intentions.

Billy Jean King, who gained 12 Grand Slam singles titles, mentioned that she was torn over Osaka’s resolution.

“While it’s important that everyone has the right to speak their truth, I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media,” King wrote in an e mail. “In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today. I acknowledge things are very different now with social media and everyone having an immediate ability to speak their truth. The media still play an important role in telling our story. There is no question that the media needs to respect certain boundaries. But at the end of the day, it is important we respect each other and we are in this together.”

It is true that a few of the world’s most distinguished athletes don’t give postgame interviews as a matter after all. Soccer gamers in Europe’s high leagues typically grant restricted entry. But high tennis gamers are hardly alone in talking after each match. Star golfers normally are interviewed after every spherical. Top observe and discipline athletes and Alpine skiers do interviews after every race. The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, now retired, would win in lower than 10 seconds and then spend half an hour or extra operating a gantlet of tv, radio and print journalists.

Osaka, along with her lengthy record of sponsors, has many new commercial partners who’ve a stake in her sustaining a excessive profile. But she already provides only a few particular person interviews and has reached a degree of superstar that she will be able to in all probability preserve by means of social media, her sponsors and protection of her matches.

Osaka is topic to a high quality of as much as $20,000 for every information convention she skips at Roland Garros. She defined in her announcement that she had seen many cases of gamers breaking down after a loss in the interview room. She mentioned that gamers have been usually requested questions that “bring doubt into our minds, and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

The doubts are reputable, nonetheless, in terms of her clay-court outcomes.

Osaka, who will play her first-round match on Sunday in opposition to Patricia Maria Tig, is a great hardcourt player however not but a confirmed risk on clay or grass. She has gained two United States Opens and two Australian Opens, all on cushioned acrylic onerous courts. On clay, she has a profession singles report of simply 19-16 and has but to succeed in a tour ultimate. After successful the U.S. Open in 2020, Osaka skipped the French Open, which was postponed to September and October due to the pandemic. This 12 months, in her solely tournaments on clay, she misplaced in the second spherical and then in the first.

“Her challenges are lack of confidence with sliding and movement, and her shots don’t carry as much weight on clay as on a hard court,” mentioned Pam Shriver, the ESPN analyst who was a U.S. Open finalist in 1978. “Her serve is also not as much of a weapon.”

Osaka, who tends to aggressively rip her returns, is inclined to creating extra errors on clay than on onerous courts, the place the bounces are true and pictures are simpler to time appropriately. Players like Swiatek and Barty get extra web clearance on their groundstrokes than Osaka, and Barty can change tempo and trajectories extra successfully along with her crisply sliced backhand.

But energy gamers with comparatively flat groundstrokes and sliding points have solved the claycourt riddle, notably Maria Sharapova, who as soon as derided herself as a “cow on ice” on the floor however in the end gained two French Opens.

“It takes time to develop, and it takes many hours on the practice courts for you to feel that your weight is underneath you on clay,” mentioned José Higueras, the veteran coach who guided Michael Chang and Jim Courier to French Open titles. “If you hit exactly the same ball on a hardcourt that is a pretty decent shot, on clay it may not be that decent, because the other player has a little more time to adjust.”

On Sunday, Osaka will strive once more to regulate her recreation in Paris. Win or lose, she plans to skip the information convention, and although her resolution has stirred resistance, it is going to additionally stir reflection.



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