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Naomi Osaka and tennis journalism’s ugly history of demeaning its players

Osaka’s experience at the French Open should spark an overdue reckoning in tennis.

Naomi Osaka serves the ball at the French Open on May 30, 2021.
Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The biggest story at the 2021 French Open wasn’t who won. The story that eclipsed all others was that Naomi Osaka walked away.

Osaka, the No. 2-ranked women’s tennis player in the world and four-time Grand Slam champion, breezed through her first-round match and then withdrew from the tournament before her second round of play. In the weeks that followed, she would withdraw from her second consecutive Grand Slam, Wimbledon, citing plans to take some personal time with friends and family. (She said she will, for now, play in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.)

Prior to the French Open — the second of the four Grand Slam tournaments, which wrapped up last weekend — Osaka had said she wouldn’t participate in mandatory press conferences because she wanted to preserve her mental health.

“We’re often sat there and asked questions we’ve been asked multiple times before and questions that bring doubt into our minds,” she wrote on Twitter. Osaka accepted that she’d be penalized for declining to appear before the media, and said she would pay the “considerable amount I get fined for this” out of pocket.

After following through on her statement and skipping her first-round press conference, however, she was not only hit with the expected fine to the tune of $15,000 but also threatened with harsher penalties. In what ESPN called a “surprising” joint statement from all four Grand Slams, Osaka was warned that should she continue to skip post-match press conferences, she could face default from the French Open, more substantial fines, and future suspensions from the Grand Slams, the biggest tennis tournaments in the world.

“I am not a natural public speaker and get huge waves of anxiety before I speak to the world’s media,” Osaka wrote in a statement. “I get really nervous and find it stressful to always try and engage and give [the media] the best answers I can. … So here in Paris I was already feeling vulnerable and anxious and so I thought it was better to exercise self-care and skip the press conferences.”

The French Open’s rigid response to Osaka was somewhat familiar to tennis fans who watched its organizing body, the French Tennis Federation, arbitrarily ban Serena Williams from wearing a catsuit during her French Open matches in 2018. Williams said she had been wearing the custom-designed bodysuit to help with circulation and prevent potentially fatal blood clots, which she had a history with, and which she’d experienced after giving birth to her daughter the year before the tournament. The president of the French Tennis Federation suggested Williams was disrespecting the game.

It’s not hard to see how Osaka’s choice to opt out of the Grand Slam tour’s media requirements — players are contractually obligated to participate in post-match press conferences — would irk a group that’s already very sensitive to being irked.

But Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open did more than ruffle feathers. After garnering support from fellow players, professional athletes in other sports, and celebrities, it raised questions about whether talking to reporters was more important than the mental health of the tour’s brightest young star.

Osaka, whether she intended to or not, called attention to a topic that tennis fans could give TED talks about: the perpetual cycle of tennis journalists committing faults and errors against female tennis players, and especially female tennis players of color like Osaka.

For a sport that loves its tradition and its history of class, wealth, and elegance (next time you watch a match on TV, make a note of how many Rolex ads you see), the media that covers it has a longstanding habit of bending toward tabloid journalism. A lot of players are subjected to some wild nonsense in their pressers. But it’s ugliest toward women of color, and has been since Serena and Venus Williams first came on the scene more than 20 years ago.

Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, and later from Wimbledon, confronted that truth by presenting the question: If the press conferences often veer away from tennis into gossipy speculation and personal attacks, then why should players risk their mental health to participate in them?

With one Grand Slam tournament left for Osaka on the 2021 tour — the US Open will start in late August — Osaka has given the sport of tennis and the journalists who cover it an opportunity to learn an important lesson from this moment.

What Naomi Osaka has had to face

Since turning pro in 2013, Osaka has been subjected to some puzzling, muddled questions during media appearances.

At the 2020 US Open, Osaka showed solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement by donning a face mask before each match marked with the names of Black people like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, were both unarmed and killed by police last year, sparking waves of protests all over the US.

The tennis media response to Osaka’s symbolic gesture was clunky at best. In a post-match interview, commentator Rennae Stubbs told Osaka that she was “trying to guess what name is going to be on the mask, every single day” and that she “can’t wait for that next mask.” Instead of absorbing the message that Osaka was raising awareness about racial injustice or discussing how Black men and women are disproportionately affected by police brutality, Stubbs treated it like a gimmick.

It’s difficult to fathom the bleakness of telling someone you can’t wait to find out which victim of police brutality will come next, and even more difficult to explain.

When Osaka went on to win the women’s singles final, she was asked again about her masks and what message she wanted to send. That question came after two weeks, seven matches, seven wins, seven masks, and seven names.

Beyond Osaka’s statement about injustice and reporters’ fumbled response, she has been open with the media about her struggles with mental health and public speaking.

Back in 2018, Osaka spoke about her depression at a press conference following a loss in Charleston, South Carolina. “Yesterday I woke up and I was really depressed, but I don’t know why,” Osaka said. Depression, as the National Alliance on Mental Illness explains, can be cyclical and doesn’t necessarily need a trigger or reason to happen. Journalists didn’t seem to pick up on what Osaka was saying, brushing off her statement as an admission that she couldn’t cope with a tough loss and a bad day on the tennis court.

The daughter of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Osaka has also had to field questions about her identity and ethnicity. She’s been the subject of articles and columns like “How Japanese is Naomi Osaka?” or “Why doesn’t the media call Naomi Osaka Black?” and made headlines like “Naomi Osaka shuts down reporter who asked her to speak in Japanese” for pushing back.

While these interactions with Osaka have been embarrassing, it’s worth pointing out that the tennis media treats a lot of players with the same kind of clumsiness. Roger Federer, for example, is one of the greatest men’s players of all time yet has famously had to deal with ridiculous questions from the media about being a dad.

Tennis players, especially women tennis players of color, have to not only play tennis but also put a lot of effort and time into managing the reactions and emotions of the people around them.

Also at the French Open this year, American rising star Coco Gauff was forced to endure a clownish statement about being compared to Serena Williams. Gauff, who is Black, has spoken in the past about how much she looks up to Serena and Venus Williams. But instead of asking Gauff what kind of inspiration she draws from the Williams sisters or how she and Serena are similar or different in their approaches to the game, a reporter more or less gave Gauff an assessment of her skin color and said “Go.” “You are often compared to the Williams sisters. Maybe it’s because you’re Black. But I guess it’s because you’re talented and maybe American too,” the reporter commented.

American player Taylor Townsend, who is also Black, has received questions about her weight since turning pro in 2012. “Tennis was the feeling of being stuck with a life where answering questions about my weight in public had literally become part of my job. Tennis was the feeling of having this permanent cloud hanging over my career ... before my career had even gotten started,” Townsend wrote earlier this month in the Players Tribune.

Another player, 19-year-old Amanda Anisimova, has experienced a different kind of scrutiny. Anisimova’s father died in 2019, when she was 17 years old, and when she lost a match in January 2020 at the Australian Open, a reporter asked whether her performance could be blamed on his death leaving her “unsettled.” The teenage Anisimova burst into tears on international TV.

And for retired players like Caroline Wozniacki and Maria Sharapova, while they haven’t experienced the same kind of intense questioning that Osaka has about race and identity, the two blonde, very photogenic players have fielded questions about their personal lives and seen their every move dissected in tabloids.

Where tennis journalism has failed

2021 Australian Open: Day 11
A shot from Naomi Osaka’s match against Serena Williams from this year’s Australian Open.
TPN/Getty Images

Professional tennis has long been insular and exclusive. The social and economic barriers that make tennis so hard to break into have largely kept it a sport for affluent, predominantly white athletes. Though there are efforts to make tennis more inclusive, the sport’s lack of diversity has been documented over and over again.

A lot of tennis journalism is an extension of that, hence some of the questions and commentary that Osaka and her fellow players have had to deal with. But there’s an added level of frustration for players who are nonwhite and from other underrepresented groups that goes beyond ignorant press conferences. In some cases, the press has played into or amplified blatant homophobic, sexist, and racist attacks without scrutiny and without regard for the mental health of the players.

One of those moments happened in 1999, when French player Amelie Mauresmo, who was out and gay, made the finals of the Australian Open. Her opponent, Martina Hingis, made transphobic comments about Mauresmo, suggesting she was winning because she was a man playing against women.

“She’s here with her girlfriend,” Hingis told the press, referring to Mauresmo’s sexuality. “She is half a man.”

Instead of pushing back against Hingis’s transphobic and homophobic comments, some journalists ran with Hingis’s quotes and began salaciously suggesting genetic testing or commenting on Mauremo’s physique, calling her “man-sized” and using headlines like “Oh MAN, She’s Good!

The Australian Open finale ended up being lackluster, with Hingis prevailing, but the takeaway was speculation and gossip about Mauresmo. After the match, Hingis remarked, “Now I think Mauresmo got her lesson. She won’t show [affection] as much.” Hingis seemed to admit that she used the press to bully and intimidate her opponent.

Mauresmo told the Guardian some seven years later, in 2006, that the experience — her first Grand Slam final — was extremely difficult because of how that bullying became a major headline.

Caitlin Thompson, publisher of Racquet Magazine, explained to me that the Hingis/Mauresmo incident is the prime example of the tabloid-esque way certain journalists covered and continue to cover tennis at the expense of its players.

“When you do that, you’ve already lost,” Thompson told me. “I think you can infer that [from the way the Hingis-Mauresmo coverage was handled,] it was written by largely homophobic people. I’m not ashamed to say that, but any gay person in the press room would have taken offense on Mauresmo’s behalf — not that you have to be gay to have empathy for this situation.”

The problem, Thompson says, is that tennis itself is an establishment that has been slow, even reluctant, to change. It’s a concern echoed by many. From the organizations in charge at local levels to the biggest tournaments in the world and the figureheads who represent the sport, tennis has largely been dominated by affluent, straight white men. Even with a transcendent player like Serena Williams, the sport hasn’t truly had a moment of reckoning when it comes to its barriers and shortcomings.

Compared to other major sports like men’s and women’s basketball, or soccer (not that these sports are without incident themselves), tennis is lacking when it comes to talking about the societal issues — race, class, sexuality, etc. — that today’s players have grown up with and are products of.

That lag includes the people covering tennis, too, leading to moments like Mauresmo faced and the mess of questions that players like Gauff and Anisimova have been asked. It also helps explain why Osaka’s refusal to engage with the press at the French Open received such strong pushback from the establishment.

Perhaps the most egregious example of tennis media’s malpractice is how it has treated arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time: Serena Williams.

Williams and her sister Venus were the ultimate outsiders, with an origin story that began with the sisters playing in Compton under the tutelage of their father, Richard Williams. Richard kept his daughters out of tennis’s major establishments like the United States Tennis Association’s development program and the junior tennis circuit. This led to a lot of chatter among players and then echoed in press narratives about how “unorthodox” Richard and his daughters were, on top of Venus and Serena being the two most successful Black American tennis players of all time.

At the 2001 BNP Paribas Open tournament in Indian Wells, California, when the Williams sisters were still new on the pro tennis scene, Serena easily defeated second-ranked Lindsay Davenport; Venus, in similar fashion, dispatched the Russian player Elena Dementieva. In her post-match press conference, Dementieva mused to journalists that Richard would fix the results of Serena and Venus’s upcoming match against each other — a rumor with no basis that Thompson says followed the sisters around for years afterward.

Not unlike what happened with Mauresmo, some of the press took Dementieva’s words at face value and played up the drama of her statement without paying much attention to how adversely it would affect the Williams sisters.

Right before the match, Venus withdrew from the semifinal with tendonitis, and fans reacted in disgusting ways, as they viewed her exit as confirmation of Dementieva’s comments. Matt Cronin wrote for Inside Tennis at the time:

Over the next few days, newspapers, wire services, TV, radio and the Internet were filled with more tennis-related stories than the sport has seen in a non-Grand Slam week during the Open era. Unfortunately, the stories were of the “Are the Williamses rigging matches?” variety ...

As a result, the situation got so out of control that the tour gave itself a gigantic black eye, one that may take years to repair. Why didn’t they act more quickly? Some claim that officials feel that any press is good press and that the players should be viewed more as entertainers than athletes — the integrity of the sport be dammed.

The fans lashed out at the sisters and their family in an ugly, racist spectacle, with Richard telling USA Today at the time that spectators called him the n-word as he and Venus were on the way to their seats. One man, he said, threatened, “‘I wish it was ’75; we’d skin you alive.’”

Serena boycotted the event for more than a decade.

“The false allegations that our matches were fixed hurt, cut and ripped into us deeply,” Williams wrote in a column for Time in 2015, explaining the boycott and her eventual return to Indian Wells. “The under­current of racism was painful, confusing and unfair. In a game I loved with all my heart, at one of my most cherished tournaments, I suddenly felt unwelcome, alone and afraid.”

The unfounded rumors that the sisters were gaming the system stuck to them for a good portion of their careers. ESPN noted in a listicle of the top 10 Williams sisters controversies — a strange premise for a story to begin with — that the No. 1 controversy was how the sisters allegedly colluded to determine the 2003 Wimbledon Ladies final outcome.

Those rumors are just some of the racist and sexist attacks Serena has faced throughout her career.

“Imagine that you have to contend with critiques of your body that perpetuate racist notions that black women are hypermasculine and unattractive,” Claudia Rankine wrote in her 2015 New York Times Magazine profile of Williams. “Imagine being asked to comment at a news conference before a tournament because the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, Shamil Tarpischev, has described you and your sister as ‘brothers’ who are ‘scary’ to look at.”

Racquet Magazine’s Thompson noted that it is unlikely Serena’s treatment would happen to star athletes in other sports, like future NBA Hall of Famer LeBron James. It’s impossible to imagine the press taking it seriously if a fellow player leveled unfounded allegations about cheating, match-fixing, and steroid use about James, she said, and then constantly questioning and commenting during James’s press appearances about said allegations. In this hypothetical scenario, no one would blame James for not participating with a bad-faith press.

“Just seeing the framing of, ‘Well, we need evidence,’ would be such a bizarre thing to say,” Thompson said, pointing to how Serena has been treated throughout her career. Thompson says she’s seen a similar reaction from the tennis media asking for proof of Osaka’s mental illness and experiences with depression, but hopes Osaka’s recent experience at the French Open will help spur change.

“I hope this moment lets us examine who makes up the tennis press and think about who has traditionally been in those storytelling roles,” Thompson said. “The cultural understanding and the social context and the political context that people are playing with now, especially women, and on top of it especially women of color, has just changed so dramatically that I don’t think it’s doing the sport much service if you don’t update the voices able to do that.”

The conversation Naomi Osaka started is an opportunity for tennis to improve itself

Instead of looking at Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open and Wimbledon as some kind of embarrassment or antagonistic gesture, the powers that be in tennis and the journalists who cover the sport could use this moment as an opportunity for growth.

Athletes like basketball players Kevin Love and Chamique Holdsclaw, swimmers Amanda Beard and Michael Phelps, baseball players Andrelton Simmons and Rob Whalen, and Osaka have all spoken publicly about depression and the importance of mental health. In doing so, those athletes battled against stigma and encouraged more athletes to be honest about their own struggles, while also improving how the leagues and organizations they belong to deal with these real challenges.

An example: In 2021, the NBA updated its mental health policies to take into account the trauma of the pandemic — building on its already existing mandate that teams offer players access to mental health professionals throughout the season.

The International Tennis Federation and the men’s and women’s Grand Slam tours should use this moment to similarly address the needs of their players, ahead of Wimbledon and the US Open later this summer. Since withdrawing from the French Open, Osaka has received words of support from players like Gauff and Serena Williams. She’s also received encouragement from peer athletes including Steph Curry, Russell Wilson, Lewis Hamilton, Chiney Ogwumike, and Ja Morant.

Osaka’s withdrawal and the positive messages she received became bigger than the French Open itself. Now there’s much more attention being paid to the way Osaka was treated by the Grand Slam and the press that covers it. Thompson thinks both can make the sport better.

“This is now in the glare of everyone’s consciousness,” Thompson said. “I think that’s a great thing for tennis because it means we can start to sort of catch up to the rest of the world and have a more modern conversation about the human beings who play it.”

In the days following Osaka’s French Open withdrawal, Roger Federer withdrew from the tournament on June 6, citing his health. There was no pushback or demand for more information from the French Tennis Federation or the media. Federer was, quite simply, looking out for his own well-being. He said he needed to listen to his body. Everyone believed him.

Update, June 17, 5:55 pm ET: This story has been amended to reflect Osaka’s withdrawal from Wimbledon and intention to play at the Tokyo Olympics.

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