This week, everyone agreed that sports press conferences are the worst. It was a bit of a pile-on. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the press conferences have begun lashing out.
On her way to this onerous duty after a win at the French Open, former Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova fell and turned her ankle. She dropped out of the tournament shortly thereafter. Press conferences 1, Tennis players 0.
What else is happening at the French Open? Who knows? Ever since Naomi Osaka decided to take her balls and go home, the tournament has been reduced to nothing but tennis. After a big, ugly, public scrap, tennis is a letdown.
There’s a lot of low-key debate about who’s to blame here. That’s simple – everyone is to blame. Everyone has been foolish in this instance.
Osaka was foolish to demand she be exempted from a duty every other player is expected to fulfill. She appeared to believe most, if not all, of her colleagues would line up behind her in support of her demands. None did. That must have been a bummer.
Even before she made that mistake, she made another – announcing her intention to break the rules. Nobody calls the bank to let them know their security system is easily bypassed before they pull the heist.
This allowed the pro-press-conference forces to begin marshalling a defence. Once battle was joined, Osaka retreated.
This story was obsessively, mind-numbingly reported all week long because it features every journalist’s favourite topic: journalists. Every one of us has a ‘disaster press conference’ story to tell. Osaka’s flight from France gave everyone an excuse to tell theirs.
There was a way to do this that would not have ended up in so much journalistic preciousness disguised as self-critique.
If Osaka doesn’t want to speak to the media, she cannot be forced to do so. She could decide not to show up. She could show up and say nothing. She could show up and pull a Marshawn Lynch – monosyllables.
The problem wasn’t that Osaka wanted to bend the rules. It was that she wanted everyone to agree with her that the rules ought to be bent.
But just as Osaka’s principled stand was beginning to look like grandstanding, the four major tournaments went over the top rope on her. They threatened to expel Osaka from Grand Slams at which she refused to talk.
Really? How would that work exactly? They’re going to kick the biggest young star in the game out of Wimbledon because she refused to mumble about giving it 110 per cent to a roomful of glazed hacks who don’t care that much either way? I rather think not.
The threat was ludicrous on its face. Worse, this is the sort of thing that starts revolutions where no revolutionary spirit exists.
The tournaments appeared even more tin-eared when Osaka released a conciliatory second communiqué more specifically detailing her mental-health challenges. The tone of debate shifted quickly after that. This was no longer about the demands in a star athlete’s rider. It was the system crushing a vulnerable individual.
Osaka claimed defeat, but she won the round. She bails on a tournament she had little chance of winning. She takes the summer off. She can return in August when the schedule swings back to hard court – coincidentally, the only surface she’s really good on.
It’s unclear if the tennis authorities understand they lost. It’s even less clear that they will take the right lessons from this.
Their mistake wasn’t pushing back on a top player. It wasn’t issuing a provocative public statement. It wasn’t even being – the worst thing you can call anyone these days – insensitive.
Their mistake was doing anything but the only thing they do well – tennis.
This was a fight about journalism. Let journalists fight that fight. If tennis players want to fight it back, fair play to them. They have more profile. We have more bitterness. I like our chances.
And, honestly, who cares? I will survive the pain of being denied the post-match wisdom of some 27-year-old who didn’t graduate from high school and so will you.
Tennis tournaments do tennis, while tennis players provide the drama. That’s the deal. Not all this drama happens on the court. In fact, the more that’s happening off it, the better.
Some players have a skill for attracting drama. Osaka has it more than most. When first the world took note of her, she was in tears after being booed in the final of the U.S. Open, a tournament she won. That was some trick.
That talent for drama is more important for the business of tennis than the actual tennis. A million people can hit a ball over the net at speed. Only a very few can migrate out of the Sports pages and into every other section of the newspaper.
Shortly after Osaka left the French Open, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty withdrew because of injury.
Barty is a phenomenal athlete who does a solid news conference. And were she to sit down beside you at a bus stop, you would have no clue who she was. That the best women’s player is anonymous is great for Barty’s lifestyle, but not so great for tennis.
If you want to sell a sports product, you cannot think of the athletes as skilled employees. No, they are unpaid marketers. Their job is getting in the news. Short of mass murder, there is no bad way to do that.
Refusing to make news is actually a clever way of getting into the news. I doubt Osaka thought of it that way, but, again, that’s why she’s so good at this.
The Grand Slams should be neither encouraging nor discouraging this behaviour. They should stand back and let it happen. Maybe ‘tut tut’ once in a while to gin things up when they’re slowing down. But as a rule, do no harm (or good).
Whatever you think of Osaka’s stand, you can’t argue it’s bad for tennis’s profile. A lot of important stuff happened in the world this week, but many people were arguing about whether the media is too mean to college-aged multi-millionaires. That’s elite-level marketing.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether Osaka (or any other athlete) talks. What matters – the only thing that matters – is that people are talking about them.