If you can’t handle the pressure, don’t play the game: If Naomi Osaka leaves the French Open

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When he was a precocious junior tennis player, Andy Murray sometimes acted like a grumpy teenager. He loved performing on the big stage – as befits a man who would later win Wimbledon – but he abhorred the obligatory press conferences after the game.

It was the trivial questions that irritated him the most. Judy Murray, Andy’s mother, has revealed that he hated being asked ‘if his shorts were too big, if he should get a haircut, shave or smile more often’.

But Andy was lucky enough to have Judy as a mother. Rather than reinforcing his distrust of the media, she booked the star-to-be on a three-day PR course, arranging help and advice from a friendly tennis correspondent who explained Murray how the media worked and taught him how best to respond to a hostile line of interrogation.

Japanese prodigy Naomi Osaka has reportedly made $55 million in the past 12 months alone. In the picture: Naomi celebrates beating Jennifer Brady

While few, even today, would mistake the Scotsman for a ray of sunshine at a press conference – unlike the always polite and engaging Roger Federer, for example – crucial media training has paid off in building the Murray brand, leading him to the national darling he is.

Perhaps Naomi Osaka would benefit from a similar education.

This week, the world’s second-ranked female player withdrew dramatically — and controversially — from the French Open after refusing to participate in post-match media conferences, citing anxiety and depression.

At 23, Osaka has won four Grand Slam singles titles and is the highest-earning sportswoman in the world. But she was nevertheless fined £13,000 for refusing to participate in the Paris press conferences after her first round victory.

Revealing that she has had “long depression” since sensationally beating Serena Williams to win the US Open in 2018, Osaka said it was best for her “well-being” to withdraw, adding that she is “a had a very difficult time.” To hang out’.

Of course, if Osaka suffers from serious mental health issues, then it’s only right that she takes the time she needs to deal with it.

And, predictably, she has gained support from younger tennis fans and social media users.

But many older tennis hands find her behavior just extraordinary. Martina Navratilova, 64, said: ‘It’s not a mental health issue, it’s a mental issue for a tennis player. She’s a four-time champion… she’s a pro, you sign up for that.”

Naomi was happy to use her platform to tell the world about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement.  In the photo: Naomi with the winner's trophy of the Australian Open 2021

Naomi was happy to use her platform to tell the world about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In the photo: Naomi with the winner’s trophy of the Australian Open 2021

Memorably, Navratilova continued: ‘You just have to be a man here: woman up, I’d say.’

Boris Becker, 53, himself a pugnacious young superstar with a difficult relationship with the media, has always understood that dealing with the press was part of the job.

“If she can’t handle the media in Paris, she can’t handle the media at Wimbledon or the US Open,” he said. “So I almost feel like her career is in jeopardy because of mental health issues.”

And Chris Evert, 66, who has won 18 Grand Slam titles, suggested there was a contradiction in Osaka’s claims when she pointed out that the supposedly bad press “built her up and helped her brand very, very much.”

Former UK number one, Andrew Castle, said it is part of the written commitments on tour that you speak to the broadcast media.  Photo: Naomi celebrates victory against Patricia Maria Tig

Former UK number one, Andrew Castle, said it is part of the written commitments on tour that you speak to the broadcast media. Photo: Naomi celebrates victory against Patricia Maria Tig

Let’s be clear about one thing: With her compulsive viewing play, political involvement, mixed heritage and status as a sporting role model, Osaka is a heroine to millions.

This status has brought her enormous wealth and privileges. The Japanese prodigy has made a reported $55 million in the past 12 months alone — and the media has inevitably raised her profile.

In a disjointed statement posted to Instagram this week, Osaka said: “I have often felt that people have no respect for the mental health of athletes and this sounds very true when I see or participate in a press conference.

We often sit there and ask questions that we’ve been asked before or questions that make us doubt and I’m just not going to subject myself to people who doubt me.’

She continued: ‘I don’t do press is nothing personal about the tournament [sic] and a few journalists have interviewed me since I was a kid, so I’m friendly with most of them.’

So there you have it: she likes to take advantage of the “friendly” media when it suits her and to boost her profile.

The slightest hint of criticism or even a routine and familiar question is too much to bear. Yet it is exactly the same media attention that has given Osaka opportunities that other smart, stubborn twenty-somethings can only dream of.

Last year, Osaka walked to the US Open court wearing masks with the names of victims of police brutality. Once again, she was happy to use her platform — and the media that bolstered it — to tell the world about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Some have even compared Osaka to a sort of tennis version of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who often lament their fate — and tell the world about their psychological struggles — from a position of equally enormous privilege.

Like the royal couple, Osaka has been criticized by those who claim she acts like a spoiled egotist who mistakenly believes she is bigger than the sport she plays.

Several older international stars — who had to scrounge for every bit of media attention and prize money they could get — were less than sympathetic.

Sally said that if Naomi Osaka (pictured) can learn that all she has to do is answer questions honestly and clearly - it will only improve her game

Sally said that if Naomi Osaka (pictured) can learn that all she has to do is answer questions honestly and clearly – it will only improve her game

Former UK number one Andrew Castle said: ‘I think she’s completely wrong. I played in 50 countries and lost in each of them.

I hated myself, but there are obligations. You don’t have to sign up for the tour and start playing, because it’s part of the written obligations on tour that you speak with the broadcast media.’

Low-maintenance behavior is a given of sloppy, young multi-millionaire sports stars these days. One I encountered had a problem with the color of the replacement car assigned to it.

The hyper-ambitious mother of a junior double star tried to force me to put her daughter’s name first in the partnership when she reported on their win, claiming it was only fair because her girl was the stronger player . (She doesn’t and I don’t.)

As a former tennis and squash tournament player, who has also captained several teams of top British names, I have occasionally faced a hostile press room following a defeat.

It’s, I admit, a difficult experience: coming off the field, sweaty, emotional, exhausted and playing in your head all the times when you’re just long over-enthusiastically hitting the ball, or failing to return a routine shot that would have given you the match.

In that frame of mind, stupid or annoying questions from journalists — some quite ignorant about tennis — can exacerbate the pain.

Yet the public – the millions who love tennis – are interested in knowing why you think the game went wrong, just as they are interested in when you win. It is the job of journalists to find the answers to these questions.

Simply put, those are the rules. And the chance to get life-changing sums to play a game you love is worth asking.

If Osaka could learn that all she needs to do is answer questions honestly and honestly, that will only improve her game.

For now, her absence means that we are all – and she especially – losers.

SALLY JONES is a journalist, presenter and former tournament tennis player.

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