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Keith Strudler: No Further Questions

In a sport like tennis where first round exits by top athletes typically command a lot of attention, nothing has rivaled second ranked Naomi Osaka’s early departure from the French Open. Of course, Osaka’s exit is a lot different than say, when Martina Hingis lost in the first round at Wimbledon in 1999, none the least being that Osaka actually won her first-round match. As I’m sure you already know, Osaka then decided to withdraw from the Tournament following a very public dispute on her appearance at post-match press conferences – which, for the record, she skipped after the first round and was subsequently fined $15,000. This all started days prior when Osaka announced, on social media of course, that she would not be doing any press conferences during the Open, specifically because the often caustic questions journalists asked were detrimental to her mental health. Such began negotiation by tweet which eventually led us here – with perhaps the second most recognizable women’s tennis player in the world withdrawing from the summer’s first major at what we hope marks the beginning of sports’ post-pandemic reopening. So much for those high hopes.

There has been no shortage of opinions about both Osaka’s decision or the posturing of the French Open. Generally speaking, it’s fairly dogmatic either way. In other words, people either seem to believe that Naomi Osaka is fully heroic in telling the tennis establishment and their press that she’ll decide when, where, and if she’ll talk. And anyone who doesn’t agree is either oblivious to mental health or a far-right capitalist who currencies in abusive labor practices. The other side seems to believe that Naomi Osaka is bound nearly by law to speak at a press conference after every match, and ignoring that sacred responsibility is not only an affront to the profession, but also every working stiff that has to show up every day, whether they like it or not. That’s where we are, a place of pure binomial where everyone has to take a side at the edge of the room, whether or not you even like tennis – which, news flash, most Americans don’t. You can say a lot of things about people right now, but nuanced is not one of them.

That said, hypocritical is one of them. See, the people demanding, demanding that Osaka speak daily to the press are the same folks that are just fine with the NFL restricting media access to players. And those who are celebrating Osaka for standing up to the abusive tennis press? They the first ones to denounce the NFL for locking reporters out. This isn’t really about what you believe about player responsibility or the role of the press or even about mental health. It’s about whether you side with the owners or the athletes, management or labor.

Now, this case has raised serious and legitimate questions about mental health, something athletes, and dare I say a lot of people deal with every day. I don’t doubt for a second that Naomi Osaka does not enjoy the often soul sucking process of answering sometimes agonizing and invasive questions day after day. I also don’t doubt that it’s far more difficult for female athletes and athletes of color, athletes who are often given far harsher critique and far less leeway in the process. Just ask Serena Williams about that. And not being a mental health professional, I absolutely cannot give even a semi-educated assessment of Naomi Osaka’s condition, only to say that I hope that she does get the support she needs and finds balance in what is clearly a demanding life.

But, recognitions aside, I don’t believe that Naomi Osaka should have used social media to inform the French Open that she wasn’t going do what everyone else in event does, even if she cited a legitimate reason for that proclamation. It was, for lack of a better way to put it, not the mature way to handle something that buy her own admission is a very serious issue. I also understand why French Open officials might not have enjoyed finding out that way, and why they may have overreacted in response. I can only imagine that a phone call, or even an email might have changed the entire trajectory of this conversation. And, lest I dream too big, might have even elicited a more compassionate response. Imagine that, two opposing parties communicating like adults? Wouldn’t that be novel.

Of course, I don’t believe Naomi Osaka will be communicating much with the French Open anytime soon. Which, for the time being, is probably for the best.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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