And Naomi Osaka has had enough. She has faced countless opponents during her stratospheric rise to the top of tennis, but this week the world No.2 put down her racquet and stepped away from polls and press incitement.
Such press conferences are a “vulture pit,” said Kris Soutar, consultant for Tennis Scotland and the Judy Murray Foundation, founded by the mother of Andy Murray, a player who has spoken openly about how the mental toll elite sport affected him.
These often male-dominated press conferences are extremely intimidating for the losing player, Soutar told CNN. “They are asked why they lost, and journalists are looking for their own little pieces of land,” he said.
It’s an intimidating prospect for any athlete, let alone Osaka, who admitted on Twitter that she was “not a natural speaker and felt huge waves of anxiety before speaking to the media about. world”.
So, the four-time grand prize winner made the dramatic decision to avoid press conferences altogether, citing mental health reasons, in the hope that any fines incurred would go to a mental health charity.
In response, the organizers fined Osaka $ 15,000 and threatened with eviction. Osaka in turn withdrew from the tournament, saying on Twitter that she hoped “everyone can focus on the tennis in Paris again.”
The 23-year-old added that she had “suffered from long periods of depression” since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018.
Following Osaka’s decision to step down from media duties, the French Open posted a tweet – which it has since deleted – with photos of Rafael Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff engaging in media functions with the caption: “They got the job done.”
This response has been “cold” and a “missed opportunity” to “break new ground” and find solutions to mental health issues in sport, Soutar said.
Competition in the age of Covid
Tennis was one of the first professional sports to emerge from the shadow of Covid lockdowns around the world.
“The industry as a whole is suffering financially, because of the cancellations, the sponsorship, everything has taken a hit,” Rapson said of Covid’s impact on sport.
Meanwhile, the Covid restrictions have exacerbated the stress of traveling tennis professionals. Before players even reach the pitch, there is a seemingly endless list of tests, travel restrictions, quarantine and social bubbles to be observed, said Daria Abramowicz, sports psychologist for Polish player Iga Swiatek.
This tightly restricted environment “really affects relationships, it affects stress levels, it affects overall emotional well-being,” according to Abramowicz.
She added that “we have never seen so many retirements, tournament withdrawals, injuries, tensions,” which Abramowicz blamed on a “Covid effect” on tennis.
Abramowicz hopes the Osaka withdrawal could “be a game-changer” in discussions about mental health in sport.
“There’s this stereotype that an athlete is some kind of gladiator, kind of a hero,” Abramowicz told CNN.
“That they’re comfortable being out of their comfort zone. And that makes it virtually impossible for athletes not to be well.”
Osaka’s decision to turn its back on press conferences has infuriated some media commentators.
Meanwhile, 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams sympathized with Osaka, saying at a post-match press conference: “The only thing I feel is that I feel for Naomi. I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it’s like. Like I said, I’ve been in these positions. “
Former great tennis player Billie Jean King took a trickier line, tweeting: “The media always play an important role in telling our story.”
But the press conference is a different beast than King’s, experts say, pointing to how social media now offers players a direct line of communication with fans.
“So it seems a bit redundant to have a post-match interview in front of a press room where players, especially if they’ve lost, are asked really arbitrary questions that everyone knows the answer to,” he said. said Rapson, who added: “Players get frustrated very quickly.”
These lectures come right after a game where players are “at the peak of their cognitive and emotional function, and stress levels sometimes skyrocket,” Abramowicz said.
And “when there is this obligation to go and talk about it, not all players are well equipped for that”.
Young players are projected into the international spotlight barely prepared for scrutiny both in the boardroom and online, experts say.
“Technology is advancing much faster than the cultural changes in the people who run the sport,” said Rapson, adding that there was a “massive disconnect between the people who sit on the boards of these governing bodies, and the reality of how things like social media impact young people.
Now, by stepping out of the media spotlight, Osaka has instead highlighted those same pressures.
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