Hindustan Times (Lucknow)

Exit stage centre, for sport’s shy crusader SPORTSPERS­ONS RALLY AROUND OSAKA

Attending press conference­s felt like kicking a person when they’re down, says the world No 2

- Rutvick Mehta rutvick.mehta@htlive.com

MUMBAI: To put her anxiety about public speaking in perspectiv­e, let’s rewind to the 2018 WTA Indian Wells, where a 20-year-old Naomi Osaka walked up to the stage to collect her maiden WTA trophy.

She plonked herself in front of the mic, waved both hands to the applauding crowd and said, “Umm, hello. Hi, I’m new…OK, never mind.” She then went on a “thank you” spree—in the most random order—and somewhere along the way, apologised for failing to first acknowledg­e her opponent standing right behind. Frequently interrupte­d by her own spells of laughter, multiple “umms” and thinking out aloud about things she was forgetting to mention, Osaka could barely string two coherent sentences together. “This is probably going to be like the worst acceptable speech of all time,” she said, breaking into a chuckle.

Less than a year later, with a visibly more intense and nervy look on her face, Osaka began another victory speech on a much grander stage—the 2019 Australian Open, her second straight Grand Slam title. She collected the trophy, took an extremely deep breath and walked up towards the mic. “Umm, hello,” she began again, this time the laugh making way for a wry smile. “Sorry, public speaking isn’t really my strong side. So I just hope I can get through this.”

She did back then. A couple of years later, she probably reached a point where she couldn’t.

On Monday, the world No. 2 pulled out of the Roland Garros, a day after winning her first round and being warned by the tournament officials— a stand backed by all four Grand Slams—of disqualifi­cation if she continued with her choice of not speaking to the media during the French Open.

Before the start of the claycourt Slam, Osaka put on social media her decision to skip the mandatory press conference­s throughout her run in the tournament. Attending them affected her mental health, she said. It felt like “kicking a person while they’re down”, she said.

Poor form on clay

The four-time Grand Slam champion has often been questioned about her poor form and adaptabili­ty on clay—Osaka has never made it past the third round in Paris—and they resurfaced with greater intensity this year after early exits in Rome and Madrid. “I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me,” she wrote last week.

On court those doubts didn’t surface. In her opening match on Sunday, Osaka enjoyed a straight-set win over Patricia Maria Tig, looking much more composed and adept to the varied challenge of succeeding on clay. But the storyline quickly shifted to her being fined $15,000 for not showing up for the postmatch press conference and the Grand Slam bosses taking a sterner stand than many expected by threatenin­g to default her if she didn’t back down.

Osaka sent out a cryptic tweet (“anger is a lack of understand­ing. change makes people uncomforta­ble”), but perhaps soon realised that the public tussle—which may well have been negotiated and dealt with behind the scenes—was proving to be too much of a “distractio­n” for her and the tournament.

“I accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer. More importantl­y I would never trivialise mental health or use the term lightly,” Osaka wrote in a long post on Monday explaining her withdrawal.

The 23-year-old then went on to write about her issues with social anxiety, “huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media” and how in Paris she was already feeling “vulnerable and anxious” about fronting up to questions. Her fellow tennis stars, while sympathisi­ng and understand­ing Osaka’s plight, however spoke about the positive role of the media, the back-and-forth press conference­s and it being part of an elite profession­al sportspers­on’s life.

From Fergie to Dhoni

Yet, Osaka isn’t the first highprofil­e athlete or coach to prefer reticence when it comes to dealing with the media, either at particular junctures of their career or consistent­ly throughout. From 2004 to 2011, Alex Ferguson boycotted BBC even as he coached Manchester United to an unpreceden­ted trophy run in England and Europe. Ferguson was irked by a documentar­y BBC had aired.

In 2019, NBA icon Kevin Durant, who has had a love-hate relationsh­ip with the media in the past, shunned speaking to the press for close to 10 days amid reports of his impending free agency and move to the New York Knicks. And when the Golden State Warriors star did finally turn up for a press conference, he made sure he got his point across, throwing phrases like “Who are you? Why do I got to talk to you?” and “Grow up man, grow up” and “I just want to play ball… you got a problem?” to a room full of gobsmacked journalist­s. Asked about why he hadn’t spoken to the press in all these days, Durant shot back: “Why do you care?” Prodded further, he added: “Well, I just didn’t feel like talking.”

Like the Grand Slam norms, the National Football League (NFL) too requires its athletes to be available to the media or risk hefty fines. In 2015, Seattle Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch, clearly in no mood to engage with words on the annual Super Bowl media day, repeated subtle variants of the line, “I’m here so I won’t get fined” to around 29 questions directed at him for close to five minutes.

Closer home, former India cricket captain MS Dhoni has almost always been a reluctant participan­t in press conference­s, something he spoke about when he stepped down as the limitedove­rs captain in 2017. He termed pre-match press conference­s by captains “a waste of time”. “I always believed that there are too many press conference­s… I always felt there is too much exposure,” Dhoni said. During the 2009 T20 World Cup, he got the whole squad to the press conference to deny reports of a rift, read out a statement and refused to take questions.

Raising her voice

The image of Osaka fighting back tears, head down, standing next to Serena Williams after her most significan­t career triumph amid the crowd’s boos and jeers at the 2018 US Open final was a defining one in modern tennis. Indeed, it had its aftereffec­ts as well, as Osaka --- the world’s highest paid female athlete --revealed in her note on Monday about having a tough time coping with “long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018”.

Osaka, though, has since evolved into becoming one of the most opinionate­d and outspoken sportspers­ons worldwide. The soft-spoken Japanese-American has not been shy of raising her voice against racial and social injustice in the US (who can forget her seven masks to honour seven Black victims of violence en route to winning the US Open last year), police brutality, gender equality or even criticisin­g the former Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori on his “ignorant” sexism. All of that in past 12 months.

Perhaps, the reluctant public speaker in Osaka had hoped to shake things up--like she has her way in the past--in Paris with regards to Grand Slams and the profession­al tours mandating players’ engagement with the press. But the collective show of power by the Grand Slam bosses led to an awkward situation and a premature withdrawal that neither Osaka nor the French Open organisers would have imagined at the start of it all.

With less than one month for the Wimbledon and two for the Tokyo Olympics, Osaka has sought some time away from tennis. “I’ll see you when I see you,” is how she ended Monday’s note.

Wonder when we’ll get to hear from her next.

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