Naomi Osaka’s refusal to do press conferences at the French Open, and her subsequent decision to withdraw from the tournament after tennis officials threatened her with disqualification, has given everyone the chance to taste a potent little stew of power dynamics and cultural trends and offer their opinions. Osaka’s statement announcing her withdrawal read, in part:
“The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows that I’m introverted, and anyone that’s seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.
“Though the tennis press has always been kind to me (and I wanna apologize especially to all the cool journalists who I may have hurt), I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media. I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try to engage and give you the best answers I can.
“So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences. I announced it pre-emptively because I do feel like the rules are quite outdated in parts and I wanted to highlight that.
In this statement, you can see a young woman of color prioritizing mental health over expectations and obligations, and you can see the self-care industrial complex spinning to an inevitable and in this case literally self-defeating end. You can see tennis officials as trying to ensure fairness and transparency amid an evolving conversation about what it means to be a professional athlete, and you can see them, only three years removed from policing Serena Williams’s clothes and body, as controlling and/or racist arbiters of a meaningless bureaucracy. (The French Tennis Federation president read a statement to the press after Osaka withdrew; he did not take any questions.) You can see press conferences as tools that reporters use to deliver insights to readers and viewers and fans, and you can see them as useless wastes of time where reporters ask bad questions that begin with “How surreal was it…” You can also see them as sometimes useful channels for information that are nonetheless warped by unchallenged assumptions around the idea that athletes must be accountable—in ways that largely benefit the media who cover them.
But in the swirling fog of the discourse, there’s something sturdier to see, too: Naomi Osaka the worker, attempting to control the conditions under which she labors. It is Naomi Osaka’s job to play and win tennis matches, and she is very good at it. If she finds that there is something preventing her from doing that work effectively, then she, of course, has the right to take steps to rectify that.
The ensuing messiness of the situation is a result of the fact that Osaka had to try and force those changes on her own. Tennis is an individual sport; there’s no players union (the Professional Tennis Players Association was established last summer amid concerns for player health and safety, but it’s unclear where it stands or if it will even operate like a union) and there’s no collective bargaining. Top players can attempt to use their sheer stardom to force changes on tour, but tournaments largely retain the power and set the terms by which the players must abide.
That a direct confrontation between one of tennis’ biggest stars and one of its biggest tournaments ended so poorly for the star is perhaps a lesson for any other players who might be thinking about changes they’d personally like to see made to their working conditions. One player, no matter how famous, can only ask for so much on her own, but a collective can ask for quite a lot.