French Open 2021: Naomi Osaka, a woman of few words, finds her clay feet for opening win

Her decision to opt out of media obligations draws $15,000 post-match fine

Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

World No2 Naomi Osaka found herself in the spotlight on tennis’s biggest stages right from the start.

Her first title, at the age of 20, was one of the biggest on the tour, Indian Wells, and she capped that with victory at the US Open, the first of what is now a tally of four Majors. Yet she afterwards admitted that the win over her childhood idol, Serena Williams, was “a little bit bittersweet… not necessarily the happiest memory.”

For on that biggest of tennis stages, the mood deteriorated rapidly after Williams was handed a game penalty for perceived coaching and then a prolonged dispute. It was an unhappy introduction to success at the highest level, but her big-time tennis has ensured a Major victory in each subsequent year, including this year’s Australian Open.

She has become one of the most recognisable faces in tennis, and trails only Williams in earnings. Along the way, the now 23-year-old has reached No1, picked up another prestigious Premier 1000 in China, and supported the ‘black lives matter’ campaign in 2020. She has, through it all, also won praise for her quiet and off-beat humour in press conferences.

All the more surprising, then, that this popular member of the tennis roadshow suddenly withdrew from all media obligations ahead of the French Open—and obligations they are, with hefty fines for those opting out of post-match conferences. On Instagram, she said:

“I’m writing this to say I’m not going to do any press during Roland Garros. I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very 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…

“I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”

The ‘reasoning’, of course, is to engage with fans—the lifeblood of the sport—and to help the media provide a conduit for tennis to the wider world. The same conduit, indeed, through which she channelled her 2020 campaign.

It is, too, a surprising move from a woman with so much experience under her belt, and now so familiar with the publicity and sponsorship machine—a machine, incidentally, that affords her the luxury of paying those fines.

The Women’s Tennis Association put Osaka’s decision into that context:

“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.

“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.”

The woman who could reclaim the No1 ranking with victory in Paris next week was, perhaps with a touch of irony, given the honour of opening this year’s tournament on Roland Garros’s showpiece arena. There she played 26-year-old Romanian, Patricia Tig, ranked 63 and more than comfortable on clay—her only title came in Istanbul last year.

But Osaka’s quality soon asserted itself after she fended off a break point in the first game. Tig then resisted hard through a marathon second game, finally conceding the break, and Osaka went on to drop just one more point on serve as she raced to a 5-2 lead.

A 20th winner from the Japanese woman worked two set points, but the Romanian made a gutsy hold, and then took advantage of a loose Osaka game to break for 4-5. However, it simply delayed the inevitable. The Osaka fire-power returned as quickly as it had disappeared, to break to love, 6-4, with 24 winners for just 16 errors to her name—and perhaps more impressively, winning eight from nine forays to the net.

Tig tried to mix things up with greater use of the drop shot, and having fought off a break point in the fourth game, she pressed Osaka to deuce in the next. There was nothing in it through most of the set, and the second seed guaranteed a tie-break with a strong hold for 6-5. Now Tig needed to keep her focus, which in the face of the tall, bouncing figure across the net, was no easy task.

Sure enough, Tig did face match point, saved with a big forehand winner. And after eight minutes, the Romanian held on with her most aggressive play of the match: the tie-break was on.

Perhaps predictably, as the bigger server with the more aggressive game, Osaka took the first advantage, 4-2, while Tig’s first serve kept missing the mark. The Japanese star handed the advantage back with a couple of tight errors, but regrouped quickly to take the win, 7-6(4), and 39 winners to the good.

She paused to collect the flowers left by her seat for her mother—it is Mothers’ Day in France—and then ambled to the on-court microphone for a short, muffled interview. It was, in fact, near-impossible to make out what she was saying—and the words were certainly few—but perhaps it was better than nothing for the fans in Philippe Chatrier.

However, there would be nothing on how she assessed her match, her form, the new Roland Garros arena and set-up, or her next opponent—another Romanian in the shape of Ana Bogdan.

It is a pity: she is a young, popular and respected woman with influence, and tennis needs role models of her stature.

Footnote:

After Osaka’s match, the FFT released the following statement.

“Following [Osaka’s] announcement, the Roland-Garros teams asked her to reconsider her position and tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue, and what might be done to address it on site.

“The Australian Open, Roland-Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open jointly wrote to her to check on her well-being and offer support, underline their commitment to all athletes’ well-being, and suggest dialog on the issues. She was also reminded of her obligations, the consequences of not meeting them, and that rules should equally apply to all players.

“Naomi Osaka today chose not to honour her contractual media obligations. The Roland-Garros referee has therefore issued her a $15,000 fine, in keeping with article III H of the Code of Conduct.

“We have advised Naomi Osaka that should she continue to ignore her media obligations during the tournament, she would be exposing herself to possible further Code of Conduct infringement consequences. As might be expected, repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament (Code of Conduct article III T.) and the trigger of a major offence investigation that could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions (Code of Conduct article IV A.3.).”

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