Naomi Osaka is talking to the media again, but on her own terms

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Ben Smith (The New York Times, July 4, 2021) writes about Osaka’s recent activities, “The tennis superstar is guest-editing Racquet magazine and has written a cover essay for Time. What’s left for traditional sports journalism?”

In early May, a couple of weeks before she tweeted that she wouldn’t appear at a required news conference at the French Open, Naomi Osaka was on a Zoom call with a writer for Racquet magazine who was trying to gain insight into the athlete’s inner life.

Ms. Osaka said she’d gone to the protests in Minneapolis last year and had been moved by what she saw. “It was a bit of an eye opener,” she said of the experience, “because I’ve never had time to go out and do anything physically.”

Ms. Osaka ignited a furious debate over the role of the tennis media with her announcement that she’d pay a $15,000 fine rather than attend a news conference that she said was bad for her mental health. Her decision, and the response from tennis officials, ended with her withdrawal from the French Open. The British tennis writer Andrew Castle called her decision “a very dangerous precedent” that would be “hugely destructive and a massive commercial blow to everyone in the sport.”

If the freak-out over the cancellation of an inevitably boring news conference seemed a bit oversized, it was because Ms. Osaka didn’t just open a new conversation about mental health in sports. She touched a raw nerve in the intertwined businesses of sports and media: the ever-growing, irresistible power of the star. We journalists are touchy about retaining what is often pathetically minimal access to athletes. The media was once the main way that sports stars found fame, glory and lucrative endorsements, and a glossy profile can still play a role in elevating an obscure player. But the rise of social media and of a widening array of new outlets has produced a power shift, as my colleague Lindsay Crouse wrote in June, “redistributing leverage among public figures, the journalists and publications that cover them.”

Ms. Osaka walked into the middle of that dynamic during the French Open. While tennis news conferences can be quite weird — some local journalist in the room amuses the traveling press by confusing one Russian player for another, or asks a particularly off-the-wall question — the mood is usually pretty sedate. Most players roll with them without complaint. And Ms. Osaka wasn’t being grilled about her personal life or her mental health. She was bothered by questions about her performance on clay courts. Another recent question concerned what she planned to wear to the Met Gala, a high-society Manhattan event of which she is a co-chair.

She has become the best-paid woman in sports, earning about $60 million last year according to Forbes, and almost universally positive coverage hasn’t hurt her ability to build a portfolio that includes swimwear and skin care lines, two Nike sneakers and the Naomi Osaka bowl at Sweetgreen. And she drew broad and favorable coverage when she provoked a tournament into taking a day off to make a statement on police killings of Black Americans. She has a cover essay in the next issue of Time that is conciliatory toward the media even as it expands on her statements about mental health, a person familiar with it said. [. . .]

Ms. Osaka skipped Wimbledon, but she’s expected to be back for the Tokyo Olympics this summer. And the Racquet issue offers a bit of the texture of a young star’s strange life — between hotel rooms and tennis courts — that you would be hard-pressed to find at a news conference.

Ms. Osaka sometimes describes herself as shy, but she told Racquet: “Tennis is a thing that I’m least shy about. At the end of the day, even if I don’t win that match, I know that I have played better than 99 percent of the population, so there’s not anything to be shy about.”

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[Photo above: Naomi Osaka at a news conference after winning the Australian Open in February. Credit: Loren Elliott/Reuters.]

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