Troubled tennis player Naomi Osaka sparked outrage on the circuit by pulling out of French Open press conferences and then the tournament itself – but she will be vindicated
In August 202, at the height of the protests against the public police murder of George Floyd, Naomi Osaka said: “Before I am an athlete, I am a black woman. And as a black woman, I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis.”
Muhammad Ali said “no” to the draft and the Vietnam War and as a result, to his championship belt. We all understood back then and approved of it, just like Millennials now understand what Osaka means when she talks about her bouts of depression.
When Osaka said she would not attend press conferences during the French Open, the circuit went into a tailspin and condemned her up and down the slam trail. Then, after she displayed the champion and influencer’s Power Of Nope and walked out of the tournament, they had to stop as it became even clearer that this young woman felt radical steps were necessary to preserve her mental health.
In doing that, she was exposing something that sports fans and we mere spectators do not admit: we treat our sportspeople – our tennis players, our strikers, our quarterbacks – as entertainers. They are our human Field Of Dreams, where we can play out whatever we need to.
As you would expect, Piers Morgan has led the pack in the UK in condemning Osaka, but as tired and predictable as that is, there is something about Naomi that is… sad. Something about her that we know is true when she talks about depression. Those who have suffered this know more than those of us who have not. They know about the spiral; the cascade of ill-feeling; the little things that can set off a barrage of doubt and self-loathing.
Add that to being on the world stage, displaying a talent you were born with and maybe love and hate at the same time: you could say that Naomi Osaka has done us all a favour. These athletes that we love and probably hate, too, have insides. Maybe they don’t want them on show anymore for our edification.
While Osaka has made headlines across the world, another sporting phenomenon happening in the USA may have escaped your attention. So-called fans have been acting up during the NBA basketball playoffs – invading the courts during play, pushing players; messing with the net; emptying popcorn onto the heads of athletes as they head down the tunnel to the locker room.
Maybe we are at a turning point in our relationship with sportspeople and maybe Naomi Osaka is here to combine a lot of things for us to look at: gender; ethnicity; mental health; growing up in an elite sport that’s been waiting for you to be old enough to play with the Big Women.
Maybe rather than rush to say “here is another petulant, rich, sportsperson”, maybe instead, like the sports announcer used to yell on US TV back in the day when a play was disputed: “Let’s roll the tape!”
Yes, Naomi Osaka is rich by most people’s standards. Probably will get richer, too. She’s only 23 and has a long time ahead of her. But she is not in the top 10 richest people in sport.
She made something like $35 million (£24.7m) last year and the beginning of this year and, like all sports stars, the money comes from endorsements etc.
On the Forbes Rich List, Conor McGregor is number one. Don’t ask me why, but he is, with 2021 earnings of $180 million. Roger Federer was top in the previous year with £106m.
These guys are making far more than Osaka does. Easily. Will she or any woman ever make the serious money that, say, the American football superstar quarterback Tom Brady does ($76M in 2021, say Forbes)?
When the women’s teams of this island nation are consistently at the top or near of the sport they play, and yet… well… you can answer that question for yourself.
On our imaginary replay tape, let’s take, first: the press conferences.
I’ve seen press conferences where women were routinely referred to as “girls”, and asked who designed their outfits. It may not happen as much anymore but just as those of us who are still breathing remember them, there are guys still breathing who used to say those things. Still do and are still working.
I’ve seen a press conference in which Serena Williams had to endure sheer banality and worse. A woman who had once won the Australian Open while pregnant had to sit there while some male journo asked her why she had stopped smiling so much. You see, he had always loved seeing her smile, so what happened?
Was she upset that she had defeated her sister Venus? You wondered if the next question would have been about Williams’s menstrual cycle or breastfeeding her daughter.
Serena replied good-naturedly that she was tired, needed to sleep. But the questions did not stop. They kept asking her to analyse her work, her soul. Because we, the fans, demand this.
Naomi Osaka’s first Grand Slam final was in New York in 2018, and she was not only powerful, but incredibly graceful with it. She defeated her idol and the Grand Slams singles champ with 23 wins, 6-2; 6-4. This happened in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium that had come to watch Serena win again.
But Naomi won and then pulled down her visor and cried. “That is the most traumatic way any champion has ever won their first major,” Pam Shriver, now an ESPN analyst, said. Serena comforted her, assured her. But it was hard to watch and it was no act.
Naomi has returned Serena’s graciousness and care to up and coming future champ and crowd favourite Coco Gauff, even inviting her on to the podium with her at the US Open.
Naomi Osaka wielding the Power Of Nope does sport a favour.
First of all to her fellow athletes, many of whom have done very little but train and compete since they were little kids.
She helps make us see sportspeople as human beings, not entertainment vehicles. She shows what a different world it is for women in sport. And she highlights what it is for women of colour in sport. Because she too has not only suffered sexist anonymous abuse online. But racist.
May she have a long life in the sport she was born to excel in. And if not, may she keep telling the truth. Maybe that above all.
What do you think? Have your say on this and more by emailing email@example.com