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Tennis

Naomi Osaka’s Agent Isn’t Helping

Screenshot: ESPN

On Monday, World No. 2 Naomi Osaka participated in her first post-match press conference since May, when she bowed out of the French Open rather than do press conferences that she said were damaging her mental health and therefore her ability to do her job.

The press conference, held virtually from the WTA tournament in Cincinnati, had been proceeding unremarkably when Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer asked Osaka a question about her relationship to the media. Osaka asked for clarification, said she was interested in the question, waved off a flack’s attempt to move on to the next one, and then answered it with her characteristic thoughtfulness. After she finished answering, she teared up, left the room for a few minutes, and then came back and finished the press conference. The entire episode would probably have been chalked up to Osaka feeling slightly overwhelmed by talking about a sensitive but nonetheless worthwhile topic, had it not been for a baffling, hyper-aggressive statement Osaka’s agent, IMG senior vice president Stuart Duguid, sent after the presser. His statement accused Daugherty of being a “bully” who was trying to “intimidate” Osaka, who again, it must be emphasized, said she found the question interesting and answered it well.

The full transcript of the exchange is here:

Daugherty: You’re not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, 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, and also do you have anything you’d like to share with us about what you did say to Simone Biles?

Osaka: Um, when you say I’m not crazy about dealing with you guys, what does that refer to?

Daugherty: Well, you said you don’t especially like the press 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: That’s interesting. I would say the occasion, like when to do the press conferences is what I feel is the most difficult, but, sorry I’m thinking…

[long pause]

WTA comms person: I think we can move on to the next question. Naomi, do you want to move on to the next question?

Osaka: Um, no, I’m actually very interested in that point of view. So if you can repeat that, that’d be awesome.

Daugherty: The question was that you’re not especially fond of dealing with the media, especially in this format. You have suggested there are better ways to do it. Would like to try to explore that. My question I guess was, you also have outside interests beyond tennis that are served by having the platform that the media presents to you. My question is how are you able, how do you think you might be able to best balance the two?

Osaka: I mean for me I feel like this is something that I can’t really speak for everybody, I can only speak for myself, but ever since I was younger, I’ve had a lot of media interest on me and I think it’s because of my background as well as, you know, 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 regard I’m 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, and I know that it’s because I’ve won a couple grand slams and I’ve gotten to do a lot of press conferences that these things happen. But I would also say like, I’m not really sure how to balance the two. I’m figuring it out at the same time as you are, I would say.

And here’s the full video, so you can judge Daughtery’s tone for yourself.

In a statement to another reporter, Ben Rothenberg, Osaka’s agent said:

The bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now. Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong and his sole purpose was to intimidate. Really appalling behavior. And this insinuation that Naomi owes her off court success to the media is a myth – don’t be so self-indulgent.

It’s hard to square the actual exchange that occurred between Osaka and Daugherty with Duguid’s bombastic statement. I think Daugherty’s phrasing may have been a little clumsy, but he was asking a fair question: Osaka has said she doesn’t like being beholden to certain media requirements, but some interaction with the media is important for her to partake in. How does she make those decisions? That Osaka herself found the question interesting, and was thoughtful while answering it, makes it even harder to understand how her agent came to the conclusion that Daugherty’s “sole purpose was to intimidate.”

Naomi Osaka is at her best when she is speaking for herself. She’s genuine and funny, and she’s proved time and again that she’s capable of describing her feelings and state of mind. Maybe Osaka really was secretly seething about Daugherty’s question and signed off on her agent taking a huge cut at an unsuspecting reporter’s head, but how the statement got out matters less than the effect it will have. All Duguid managed to do was provide yet another opportunity for all sorts of ill feelings about the media and mental health to be projected onto his client by people who are only interested in her as a cudgel to be swung around in a never-ending culture war. Someone should rein that guy in.