COMMENT: Naomi Osaka French Open withdrawal a powerful vehicle for her argument

The French Open is rarely short of talking points, and Naomi Osaka has certainly provided them this year.

The Japanese star announced before the tournament even began that she was essentially implementing a one-woman boycott of the press to protect her mental health.

It was something everyone had an opinion about one way or another, including Roland Garros officials who threatened her with a default should she not reconsider her stance.

If the hope was that such a threat would jolt Osaka into relenting and making herself available to the press once again, those hopes ended on Monday night when she opted to withdraw from the tournament instead, and it felt like very little was ultimately achieved by the whole affair.

If Osaka has achieved nothing else, though, she has certainly ensured people have been discussing the merits of the current rules for, and expectations of, players with regards the press.

That is a discussion for another day perhaps, once the dust has settled here and Osaka has hopefully received the help she requires.

Right now, though, there is only a sense that Osaka has made the right decision, primarily for herself but for tennis too.

Grand Slams are, by their very nature, the ultimate test of a tennis player. They are designed that way, and they must remain that way. It is always a similar argument people make for keeping the men’s competition at Grand Slams a best-of-five format.

Slams are supposed to be gruelling marathons that shine a spotlight on every facet of a player’s armoury and expose whatever weaknesses may be there. That is how we find our greatest champions. Adversity is the fire in which greatness is forged, not comfort.

Naomi Osaka French Open

Say, for example, a player felt unable to meet the physical demands of playing a Grand Slam. They wouldn’t say: ‘I’m not feeling great but I’ll just come and can I play shorter matches than the others?’

When Novak Djokovic suffered an injury in the third round the Australian Open, he didn’t say: ‘Right, best-of-three from now on please.’ He steeled himself, competed on the same terms as everyone else, took one match at a time, and saw where it got him.

It’s surely the same principle for if a player is not feeling up to the mental demands of the tournament. Have a go, or don’t have a go, try and succeed or try and fail – you don’t get to not try and succeed.

And ultimately, the fact that Osaka would have gained an advantage over her rivals by simply not talking to the press is a spectre that loomed large over this entire situation.

Did she intend it to be? No. Is that the way she designed it to be? Absolutely not. But it’s the reality of what it would have been.

Less time with the press than rivals creates more time to rest. Less scrutiny means less pressure. Fewer questions she might not want to hear means fewer tangles with self-doubt.

Let us not forget as well that every player is battling a weakness in a Grand Slam somewhere. Osaka may have social anxiety and struggle to handle press conferences and self-doubt, but she has an immaculate game and more power than any given rival who might thrive under the scrutiny of the press yet struggle technically.

That is what makes Grand Slams so absorbing – that they probe every player indiscriminately for weakness and challenge them to overcome.

Naomi Osaka Australian Open

There is a school of thought that Osaka has a point and tennis should examine whether players really need to be held to obligations with the press. That is a discussion that I think should be welcomed, although it is one for which a simple solution is unlikely to be found.

The tennis press can and should improve. It’s something we have been advocating for on Tennisbuzz for a while. It is, though, a stretch to say that they cause mental health issues. It seems from Osaka’s statement that she has been generally happy and grateful for the treatment she has received from the press despite her anxiety problems.

There is also the question of how the press themselves, and the mental health of those who work within it, would be affected if players were no longer obligated to speak to them.

Player access is, after all, what justifies the cost of covering tennis. Without it, tennis gets less coverage, and journalists less work and income. What of the mental health impact on those people and does that not deserve the same level of protection than that of Osaka?

Then there is the sponsors too, the ones whose names and logos are behind the players whenever they do a press conference. They would be getting less for their money, leading to less investment in tennis and smaller prize pots for players, the majority of whom already struggle to make a decent living out of the sport.

Of course, this isn’t to say that a discussion shouldn’t take place over possible changes to the current system. They absolutely should.

It is merely to say that it is a deeply complexed issue that would drill deep into the foundational infrastructure of the whole sport, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves otherwise. It certainly isn’t going to be a quick fix.

Naomi Osaka salutes victory at Australian Open

But ultimately, and as harsh as it sounds, this is Osaka’s story, not tennis’.

Considerably more players have come out in criticism of Osaka’s stance than have in defence of it, and so is it not the case that Osaka adapting to the demands of tennis is a more reasonable solution than tennis adapting to the demands of Osaka?

If this was a technical problem, she would hire a coach and work on it. If it was a fitness problem, she would hire a physio and work on it. There appears to be little to stop her treating this in the same manner.

In the meantime, all any of us can really do is applaud her decision, which was a courageous one, and wish her all the success in the world in conquering the anxieties and bouts of depression that have clearly gripped her.

There is, though, one overriding takeaway from this, and it is crucial it does not get lost in the shuffle – and that is that whatever else this issue was, it was incredibly serious and worthy of the considered attention of all whom it touches.

If it was not, we would not have reached this impasse whereby withdrawing from one of the most important events of the tennis calendar is the preferred solution.

However, in making that decision, Naomi Osaka has made a far greater statement than her press boycott ever could have.

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