Mike Rowbottom

The knee-jerk reaction, as media, to Naomi Osaka’s current unwillingness to commune with the press at the French Open tennis tournament is to say: "Typical diva."

Back in the mists of time, just before the 1999 World Athletics Championships were due start in Seville, we, the Great British Press Corps, had need of interview with our main golden hope, heptathlete Denise Lewis, who the year before had retained her Commonwealth title and added the European version.

We knew our rights. Page space had been allotted to our would-be Golden Girl on the eve of competition.

So when we were told that Lewis was in the team hotel but didn’t want to give a press conference, and were offered instead a piece of paper containing a couple of anodyne quotes by way of a preview, we were up in arms. It was, I think I am correct in recalling, the biggest hoo-hah since the Battle Of Britain.

As things turned out - and I was very much the observer as some of my more senior colleagues told a few members of UK Athletics what was what - Lewis did assent to being mass-interviewed. That was the big tick in the box as far as we were concerned, and although she didn’t get an A star from us for winning gold, we were able to award her an A for a fine silver - a year before her Olympic gold in Sydney.

Britain's Denise Lewis en route to world heptathlon silver in 1999 at Seville, having cleared the vital British press hurdle before competition got underway ©Getty Images
Britain's Denise Lewis en route to world heptathlon silver in 1999 at Seville, having cleared the vital British press hurdle before competition got underway ©Getty Images

As things stand, media colleagues currently at Roland Garros are in a similarly agitated state about not having their regular - compulsory - access to the 23-year-old world number two women’s player, who last Wednesday (May 26) tweeted that she would not be giving any news conferences during the French Open because she wants to protect her mental health.

Osaka said expecting players to answer questions after a defeat amounted to "kicking a person while they're down", adding: "I've often felt that people have no regard for athletes' mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.

"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."

Grand Slam rules state players can be fined up to $20,000 (£14,160) for failing to meet their media obligations, with the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) saying the players "have a responsibility to their sport and their fans" to speak to the media during competitions.

Osaka was duly fined a relatively conservative $15,000 (£10,570) for not doing media after yesterday's first-round win over Romania's Patricia Maria Tig.

The fine is, of course, irrelevant to the world’s highest-earning female athlete. According to Forbes.com, in a fully active 2019 Osaka banked $37.4 million (£26.4 million/€30.7 million), more than any other sportswoman, even Serena Williams, had ever earned in a single year.

But the vexed authorities went further, with a joint statement from the four Grand Slam organisers saying Osaka also faces "more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions".

The organisers’ position is this: "A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves.

"These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story The facilitation of media to a broad array of channels, both traditional and digital, is a major contributor to the development and growth of our sport and the fan base of individual players."

Naomi Osaka negotiated her first round match at the French Open yesterday but not the post-match interview - for which she was fined and threatened with further fines and possible disqualification ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka negotiated her first round match at the French Open yesterday but not the post-match interview - for which she was fined and threatened with further fines and possible disqualification ©Getty Images

In response, Osaka tweeted "anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable."

Osaka’s 25-year-old sister Mari, a former player who reached four International Tennis Federation finals, put a message of support on Reddit before later taking it down, saying she had "f****d up" in posting it.

"Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad at clay," she wrote.

"At every press conference she’s told she’s has a bad record on clay. When she lost in Rome she was not ok mentally. Her confidence was completely shattered and I think that everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay.

"This isn’t true and she knows that in order to do well and have a shot at winning Roland Garros she will have to believe that she can. That’s the first step any athlete needs to do, believe in themselves.

"So her solution was to block everything out. No talking to people who is going to put doubt in her mind. She’s protecting her mind hence why it’s called mental health. So many people are picky on this term thinking you need to have depression or have some sort of disorder to be able to use the term mental health.

"I don’t know what she is going to do in the future when the tournament pushes back and threatens to default her but I fully support my sister’s actions because she’s just trying to do what’s best for her. Tennis players don’t get paid to do press conferences. They only get paid when they win matches."

This is not a simple question.

Personally I fully understand the frustration that will be felt by many of my colleagues seeking to do a proper job in Paris.

But I must confess I have always felt there was something a bit monstrous about the way every tennis player, all the time, was expected to turn up to face the press. From the press point of view it has felt like wandering daily into a restaurant offering all you can eat for a set price.

As a world class athlete, Lewis never had to do remotely as much media as tennis players. The insistence on having to show up after every match is an obligation that is not shared by top track and field athletes, rugby players or football players.

The press may not love it, but you don’t have to talk in a mixed zone. You may get called up, in ones or twos, to accompany a manager or official on the top table at a press conference. 

For athletes who win medals there will be one required, but not obligatory, appearance at a post-event conference. I have never heard of any athlete being fined for missing one, never mind threatened with a disqualification from future meetings.

And anyone who has covered Grand Slam tennis for more than 20 minutes will acknowledge that much of what Osaka complained about in her midweek tweet is true.

Osaka, as far as one can judge not actually knowing her but seeing her through the prism of the media, is unusually thoughtful, honest and independent, not merely as a sportswoman but as a person.

She has shown that in the way she has engaged with the Black Lives Matter protest movement over the past year.

Perhaps the most useful comments on this situation come from those who have, to an extent, shared the obligations and pressures of Osaka’s situation, although of course only she can know what it feels like inside her own head.

Seven-time Grand Slam champion John McEnroe, not one of sport’s notable rule followers, was interviewed on the subject by NBC’s Mary Carillo - with whom, as it happens, he won the 1977 French Open mixed doubles title - and was complimented on the fact that, even when he was defaulted from the Australian Open, he always turned up for the regulation post-match interview.

"Well thanks Mary," McEnroe said. “I appreciate that, and there were certainly times when I didn’t want to go there, and that people I felt were coming after me unfairly. Sometimes I think I deserved it. But you got to stand up and be accounted for, and I believe Naomi will figure that out very soon.

"I mean she’s got a team around her, obviously things are totally different than when I played, there’s social media, she can make her feelings felt whatever way she wants to do it, but it just seems like she’s actually putting more pressure on herself by doing what she’s doing right now, and obviously she doesn’t want that."

Historically, nobody has done more for the women’s game, nor been more responsible for enabling athletes such as Osaka to earn megabucks, than Billie Jean King, who won 12 Grand Slams between 1966 and 1975 and was a major campaigner for equal prize money, becoming the first President of the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973.

"I fully admire and respect what Naomi is doing with her platform, so I am a little torn as I try to learn from both sides of this situation," King posted on Twitter.

"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.

"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."

Tianna Bartoletta, the Rio 2016 long jump champion from the United States, is another notably independent and thoughtful athlete. Her advice to Osaka? "Serve them ‘I’m just here so I don’t get fined’ energy."

Easier said than done, perhaps. But you have to feel it might be the best all-round solution…