Naomi Osaka’s return to the news conference format after a three-month hiatus went smoothly for three questions on Monday ahead of the Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio.
But Osaka, the Japanese tennis star, ended up in tears after answering the fourth query, which came from Paul Daugherty, a sports columnist for The Cincinnati Enquirer. He questioned how she could balance her resistance to news conferences with the fact that her outside interests were “served by having a media platform.”
Osaka soon left the room to compose herself while the camera in use for this remote interview session was switched off.
She returned five minutes later.
“Sorry for walking out,” she said before completing the news conference in shortened form.
Her agent, Stuart Duguid, was upset.
“The bully at The Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now,” he said in a text message. “Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong, and his sole purpose was to intimidate.”
That was a matter of opinion. But the scene was without a doubt the latest sign of Osaka’s vulnerability, and the latest thought-provoking development in her 2021 season. She has played rarely — just six tournaments — but ignited plenty of conversation and debate: raising awareness about the mental health of athletes while challenging the established ways that they communicate with journalists.
At the French Open in May, she made it clear she would decline to do pretournament or post-match news conferences, citing the need to preserve her well-being and avoid negative thoughts (she has struggled to adapt to the clay-court surface). But that uncommon stance created a clash with French Open and Grand Slam officials. Osaka was fined $15,000 for skipping her press commitments after her first-round victory, and was threatened with more fines and potential disqualification if she continued not to comply.
It was a hard line, and she withdrew before her second-round match in Paris, explaining on social media that she did not want to become a distraction. She revealed that she had experienced depression since winning her first Grand Slam singles title at the 2018 United States Open.
She returned to her home in Los Angeles and did not play again until the Olympics last month in Tokyo, where the American gymnastics star Simone Biles brought more visibility to the subject by withdrawing from several events after citing her own mental health issues. “I don’t trust myself as much as I used to,” Biles explained.
Osaka said on Monday that she had texted Biles during the Games but had not spoken with her directly. “I sent her a message but I also want to give her space, because I know how overwhelming it can feel,” Osaka said.
Osaka was asked whether she was “proud of being brave” in Paris.
“In that moment I wasn’t really proud,” she answered. “I felt it was something I needed to do for myself, and more than anything I felt like I holed up in my house for a couple weeks, and I was a little bit embarrassed to go out because I didn’t know if people were looking at me in a different way than they usually did before. But I think the biggest eye-opener was going to the Olympics and having other athletes come up to me and say they were really glad I did what I did. So, after all that I’m proud of what I did, and I think it’s something that needed to be done.”
No significant changes have been made yet to player-reporter interactions, which remain largely virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic. Players participated in post-match news conferences and interviews at Wimbledon, a major tournament that Osaka skipped.
But there have been continuing discussions between Osaka and her team and WTA officials and other tennis administrators. Osaka decided to meet with the news media before her opening match at the Western & Southern Open, which is scheduled for Wednesday against either Coco Gauff or Hsieh Su-wei.
The news conference on Monday was Osaka’s first since she lost to Jessica Pegula in her opening match at the Italian Open on May 12. It was also Osaka’s first interview session since the Olympics, during which she took on a new dimension by becoming the first tennis player to light the cauldron. But she continued to struggle on court, losing in the second round to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic.
“The Tokyo Olympics, I’ve kind of been waiting for them for eight years almost, because I didn’t make it to the Rio one,” Osaka said of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. “I felt everyone started asking me about the Tokyo Olympics every year from that point, so I feel very sad about how I did there but also a little bit happy I didn’t lose in the first round as well because I haven’t played.”
Daugherty soon asked his question. “You are not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format,” he said. “Yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform. I guess my question is, How do you balance the two?”
Osaka hesitated and asked Daugherty: “When you say I’m not crazy about dealing with you guys, what does that refer to?”
Daugherty answered, “Well, you’ve said you don’t especially like the news conference format, yet that seems to be obviously the most widely used means of communicating to the media and through the media to the public.”
Osaka began to answer, speaking carefully. “I would say the occasion, like, when to do the press conferences, is what I feel is the most difficult,” she said, referring to their timing before making several long pauses and then declining an opportunity from the news conference moderator to move on to the next question.
She asked Daugherty to repeat his query. “I can only speak for myself,” she said. “But ever since I was younger I have had a lot of media interest on me, and I think it’s because of my background, as well as how I play, because in the first place I’m a tennis player. That’s why a lot of people are interested in me, so I would say in that regards I am quite different to a lot of people. And I can’t really help that there are some things that I tweet or some things that I say that kind of create a lot of news articles or things like that.”
Osaka said she was “not really sure how to balance the two” and said to Daugherty that she was “figuring it out at the same time as you are.”
Then she began losing composure, wiping her eyes and lowering her visor as the next question was asked by another reporter, and she soon left the room. Osaka returned, but it remains unclear what approach she will take going forward.
Ben Rothenberg contributed reporting