Will Tennis Blink Before Naomi Osaka Does?
10:48 AM EDT on May 31, 2021
Naomi Osaka's insistence upon her right to remain silent is ridiculous, admirable, silly, thought-provoking and, well, fascinating. Not necessarily wise, I grant you, in the ways that most of these measuring contests usually are, but it's still an experiment worth playing out, at least until we get bored with it on Wednesday.
Whatever her explanations for choosing not to speak to media during the French Open, the upshot ultimately is this: She wants to restrict her obligation as a performer to her performances, the way actors, musicians, dancers, Kyrie Irving, et. al., do. She finds the postmatch pressers 1) always tedious, 2) usually repetitive, 3) sometimes draining and 4) an ever-present waste of her time.
All these explanations hold a level of water, because well, they often are. Whether they are also an impingement upon an athlete's psyche is more an individual matter. Osaka says they are, so we can either take her at her word or dismiss her as Irving was dismissed for claiming the same thing before the start of the NBA season. That's an individual matter, too.
What they definitely are, though, is a highly valued promotional vehicle for the people who run the event, and the folks who run the French Open and the other three Grand Slam events are acting as though this particular obligation is galactically non-negotiable. This makes it less a matter of the quality of the format than a matter of the athlete's duties and obligations away from the actual workplace. And that's another bucket of anchovies entirely.
Osaka said she's not doing pressers. The Open is saying, "Yes you are, and here's a $15,000 fine to make you do it." Osaka has re-raised to, "I've got 15 grand in this pack of gum. I can get 15 granded after every match until I'm 93. What else you got, Pierre?" to which the Open and its kin have gone all-in to, "Or you won't play in the other Slams," a risky play to make this early in the hand. Osaka is now left with four plays of her own.
1. Don't play the other majors on principle and let public opinion beat the tournaments into submission. Stars drive tennis, and Osaka is the logical inheritor to Serena Williams's lands, titles, and royal prerogatives. "Why isn't Naomi playing?" "She doesn't like pressers so they put her in time out." "Jumping Jesus, who thought that was a good idea? You want to watch Sixers-Wiz or Leafs-Habs?"
2. Don't play the other majors and give up playing meaningful tennis. Everyone loses, and the sport is diminished in the name of egalitarian standards obscuring the more mean-spirited issue of who is actually in charge here. Other than there being no rooting interest in such a war of wills, at least we'll have eight more weekends freed for healthier pursuits, like watching something else.
3. Play the other majors and sulk through the pressers, providing the bare minimum of engagement and/or leaving at the first question she finds objectionable to remind everyone that the questions matter far less than the answers. That'll be fun for everyone who bet the under; Osaka will grudgingly have bent on a principle she seems to hold dearly, and the world will get a spoonful of rhetorical treacle it will be better off having missed. It will be an interview made up of pure scorn, the kind of television we usually associate with house renovation shows.
4. Play the other majors and start interrogating the interrogators. A few returns of poor serve like, "Why would you ask that?" or, "Did you watch the match?" or the underused, "Who did you kidnap to get your credential, you moron?" take tactical advantage of the situation and can change a presser into a test of wills that shake all but the bravest journalists. It could create some sparks of genuine insight and brilliance, but also some serious spite and rancor, and you can guess in one second or less which of those two the highlight shows would prefer.
There is also a fifth answer, in which she just charms everyone on the outside while holding them all in silent contempt, treating the whole exercise the way she would doing her laundry—a little bit of drudge, a little bit of grudge. The postgame meet-and-bleat will return to its rightful place in the industry as a rote exercise that celebrates the superficiality of sport through the unchanging tradition of "Oh, sure it sucks, but it's 10 minutes, tops. Just get it over with."
That's what's likely to happen in the end, an amalgamation of soul-saddening compromises that everyone finds less potentially damaging to the status quo. That's usually how these things work out in the end. Nothing is revealed, nothing is determined, the unpleasant center holds and we all soldier on to our next destinations—retirement, hip replacements, annoying grandchildren and ultimately, death. But along the way, we'll all be reminded that in Osaka v. The Blazers, the attempt to control one's surroundings at all times was, is, and will always exhausting for her and ultimately a victory of little value for the straw hats. And in the end it will be just another triumph for the still undefeated Team What The Hell Was That All About?
Update (1:53 p.m. ET): Osaka has withdrawn from the French Open.
Stay in touch
Sign up for our free newsletter