On the French Open, Naomi Osaka Seeks Consolation on Clay and No Interviews

PARIS — Whereas different main gamers juggled apply and media commitments forward of the French Open, Naomi Osaka targeted solely on apply this week.

She was on court docket at Roland Garros early on Friday, hitting with the previous No. 1 Angelique Kerber on the crimson clay, the place Osaka doesn’t really feel solely relaxed. Throughout breaks, she sat in a chair staring straight forward as her coach, Wim Fissette, crouched by her aspect in dialog.

The second-seeded Osaka is tennis’s greatest new star and now the highest-paid female athlete in the world, forward of Serena Williams. Osaka has gained 4 Grand Slam singles titles, two greater than another girl since 2018. However the French Open, the one Grand Slam event performed on clay, can be an enormous problem. She didn’t get previous the third spherical in 4 earlier appearances, and so she deliberate to strategy the occasion otherwise: Osaka lately introduced that, to guard her psychological well being, she would not “do any press” during the tournament, which begins Sunday.

It stays unclear what her news-media abstention will entail. Osaka, who represents Japan and lives in the USA, is beneath contract with the Japanese broadcaster Wowow. Will she select to talk with that community and different broadcasters? Will she give post-match interviews on court docket? Or will she merely select to skip the standard post-match information convention designed to serve all kinds of shops?

Solutions weren’t instantly forthcoming, and Stuart Duguid, her agent, declined to remark when requested for clarification. What is obvious is that Osaka selected not to participate within the official media day on Friday, which made her the exception. The individuals included the ladies’s No. 1, Ashleigh Barty; the reigning girls’s champion, Iga Swiatek; and the 13-time males’s champion, Rafael Nadal. Already an immovable object at Roland Garros, Nadal now has a everlasting presence after the disclosing this week of a metal statue of him ripping his trademark forehand.

Nadal and his fellow gamers addressed quite a few matters on Friday, and most have been requested about Osaka’s resolution. None criticized her alternative, however all stated they might take a special tack.

“As sports activities individuals, we must be prepared to simply accept the questions and attempt to produce a solution, no?” Nadal stated. “I perceive her, however within the different hand, for me, with out the press, with out the individuals who usually are touring, who’re writing the information and achievements that we’re having around the globe, most likely we won’t be the athletes that we’re at this time. We aren’t going to have the popularity that we have now around the globe, and we won’t be that well-liked, no?”

Nadal, who will flip 35 on Thursday, is a creature of behavior who started giving interviews as a preteen prodigy. The panorama has modified dramatically since he gained his first French Open title in 2005. Athletes now converse by means of social media, however the shock announcement from Osaka, 23, isn’t all a few era hole.

Barty, from Australia, is 25, and Swiatek, from Poland, is nineteen. Each are previous French Open champions, and each are massive stars of their dwelling international locations.

“For my part, press is form of a part of the job,” Barty stated. “We all know what we join as skilled tennis gamers. I can’t actually touch upon what Naomi is feeling or her selections.”

Worn down by expectations and the depth {of professional} tennis, Barty took a virtually two-year break in her profession earlier than returning in 2016.

“At instances, press conferences are laborious, in fact, nevertheless it’s additionally not one thing that bothers me,” she stated. “I’ve by no means had issues answering questions or being fully sincere with you guys.”

In a press release on Friday, the WTA emphasised how significantly it took the problem of psychological well being, but additionally confused that media obligations are a part of the job.

“The WTA welcomes a dialogue with Naomi (and all gamers) to debate potential approaches that may assist help an athlete as they handle any issues associated to psychological well being, whereas additionally permitting us to ship upon our duties to the followers and public,” the assertion stated. “Skilled athletes have a duty to their sport and their followers to talk to the media surrounding their competitors, permitting them the chance to share their perspective and inform their story.”

Swiatek, just like the younger Canadian Bianca Andreescu, has prioritized the psychological aspect of her recreation, utilizing sports activities psychology from an early age and hiring a performance psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, as a part of her workforce.

Swiatek stated on Friday that she didn’t assume participating in information conferences was troublesome or had affected her psychological well being.

“I really feel that the media is de facto vital as nicely as a result of they’re giving us, you might be giving us, a platform to speak about our lives and our perspective,” she stated. “It’s additionally vital, as a result of not all people is knowledgeable athlete, and never all people is aware of what we’re coping with on court docket. It’s good to talk about that. We’ve got like two methods to try this: media and social media. It’s good to make use of each of those platforms and to teach individuals.”

What social media lacks — except an athlete chooses to often reply questions from followers — is dialogue.

Tennis information conferences aren’t what they was once. They’re usually shorter and far lighter on inquiries about ways, approach and the match that simply completed. However they continue to be a chance for journalists to ask questions on any topic. Additionally they enable an opportunity for individuals who report often about tennis to develop a rapport with the athletes and higher perceive their personalities, psyches and, as Swiatek neatly alluded to, their motivations and intentions.

Billy Jean King, who gained 12 Grand Slam singles titles, stated that she was torn over Osaka’s resolution.

“Whereas it’s vital that everybody has the suitable to talk their fact, I’ve all the time believed that as skilled athletes we have now a duty to make ourselves out there to the media,” King wrote in an e-mail. “In our day, with out the press, no person would have recognized who we’re or what we thought. There isn’t a query they helped construct and develop our sport to what it’s at this time. I acknowledge issues are very completely different now with social media and everybody having a right away potential to talk their fact. The media nonetheless play an vital function in telling our story. There isn’t a query that the media must respect sure boundaries. However on the finish of the day, it will be important we respect one another and we’re on this collectively.”

It’s true that a number of the world’s most outstanding athletes don’t give postgame interviews as a matter in fact. Soccer gamers in Europe’s high leagues usually grant restricted entry. However high tennis gamers are hardly alone in talking after each match. Star golfers normally are interviewed after every spherical. High monitor and subject athletes and Alpine skiers do interviews after every race. The Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, now retired, would win in lower than 10 seconds after which spend half an hour or extra working a gantlet of tv, radio and print journalists.

Osaka, together with her lengthy checklist of sponsors, has many new commercial partners who’ve a stake in her sustaining a excessive profile. However she already provides only a few particular person interviews and has reached a degree of celeb that she will be able to most likely preserve by means of social media, her sponsors and protection of her matches.

Osaka is topic to a advantageous of as much as $20,000 for every information convention she skips at Roland Garros. She defined in her announcement that she had seen many cases of gamers breaking down after a loss within the interview room. She stated that gamers have been usually requested questions that “convey doubt into our minds, and I’m simply not going to topic myself to those who doubt me.”

The doubts are authentic, nonetheless, in terms of her clay-court outcomes.

Osaka, who will play her first-round match on Sunday in opposition to Patricia Maria Tig, is a great hardcourt player however not but a confirmed menace on clay or grass. She has gained two United States Opens and two Australian Opens, all on cushioned acrylic laborious courts. On clay, she has a profession singles file of simply 19-16 and has but to achieve a tour ultimate. After successful the U.S. Open in 2020, Osaka skipped the French Open, which was postponed to September and October due to the pandemic. This 12 months, in her solely tournaments on clay, she misplaced within the second spherical after which within the first.

“Her challenges are insecurity with sliding and motion, and her pictures don’t carry as a lot weight on clay as on a tough court docket,” stated Pam Shriver, the ESPN analyst who was a U.S. Open finalist in 1978. “Her serve can be not as a lot of a weapon.”

Osaka, who tends to aggressively rip her returns, is susceptible to creating extra errors on clay than on laborious courts, the place the bounces are true and pictures are simpler to time appropriately. Gamers like Swiatek and Barty get extra web clearance on their groundstrokes than Osaka, and Barty can change tempo and trajectories extra successfully together with her crisply sliced backhand.

However energy gamers with comparatively flat groundstrokes and sliding points have solved the clay-court riddle, notably Maria Sharapova, who as soon as derided herself as a “cow on ice” on the floor however in the end gained two French Opens.

“It takes time to develop, and it takes many hours on the apply courts so that you can really feel that your weight is beneath you on clay,” stated José Higueras, the veteran coach who guided Michael Chang and Jim Courier to French Open titles. “Should you hit precisely the identical ball on a hardcourt that could be a fairly first rate shot, on clay it might not be that first rate, as a result of the opposite participant has slightly extra time to regulate.”

On Sunday, Osaka will attempt once more to regulate her recreation in Paris. Win or lose, she plans to skip the information convention, and although her resolution has stirred resistance, it is going to additionally stir reflection.

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