If all goes as planned, Montreal will host the world’s top female tennis players this summer, at the annual National Bank Open. It would be expected that the world’s No. 2 player, Japan’s Naomi Osaka, would be part of the draw.
At only age 23, Osaka has transcended her sport. So, when a few days ago, she posted a heartfelt message explaining that to preserve her mental health, she would skip the traditional and obligatory post-match press conferences at Roland-Garros — the prestigious tournament also known as the French Open — it should have been applauded by all.
Instead, initially, the tournament officials’ response was abhorrent, insensitive and embarrassing. First, the tournament trolled her online, via their Twitter account. If we’ve condemned Donald Trump for his cyberbullying, surely, we can’t stand for that of Roland-Garros. Then, citing contract obligations, the officials threatened Osaka with more than the fines she had already said she was ready and willing to pay. They hinted they would kick Osaka out of the tournament if she refused to speak to the press and managed to get the other three annual Grand Slam tournaments (Wimbledon, U.S. Open, Australian Open) to sign on. Oh, pardon. I meant to gang up, because that’s what bullies do.
Displaying a special brand of gall, people who have never been ranked among the top players in the world, who have never been crowned highest-paid athlete — as Osaka was last year, to the tune of US $55 million — those who don’t have the faintest idea what pressure she’s dealing with, were telling her that her well-being wasn’t a priority but press appearances were.
I’m a long-time tennis fan, and part of what I love most about the sport is its traditions, like players wearing only white at Wimbledon, and patrons drinking the signature Honey Deuce cocktail at the U.S. Open. But traditions, at times, need to be adjusted.
In her statement, Osaka painted a clear picture of what she wanted to avoid: leaving a press conference distraught and in tears. Does it happen all the time? No. But how many players need to break down before we give a damn and review the way this often less-than-glorious exercise is conducted?
What was inelegantly asked of Osaka is the equivalent — post #MeToo awareness — of forcing her into a pre-arranged marriage with a man she expressly says she wasn’t comfortable around.
Did I hallucinate all of our talk of openness, the campaigns encouraging us to seek mental health help, the initiatives à la Bell Let’s Talk? Because some of the commentariat, the ones in chorus with most tournament officials, the ones who would have you believe Osaka is nothing but a spoiled brat incapable of understanding the type of contracts she’s been signing for years, make me believe that the recent advances we’ve claimed to have made when it comes to mental health are really just for show.
When basketball superstar LeBron James became a social justice crusader, right-wing media pundits told him to shut up and dribble, and many of us were rightfully outraged. How is what was done to Osaka any different?
In a subsequent statement, Osaka evoked her bouts with depression and withdrew from the French Open, no longer wanting to be a distraction. Some of her sponsors, like Nike and Sweetgreen, expressed their support. And magically, Roland-Garros officials softened their tune because the tradition they — and other tournaments — seem to be most interested in preserving is not that of press access, but rather that of making money at any cost. I’d like to think the National Bank Open is different, and will prioritize the welfare of players over profit.
Through her father, part of Naomi Osaka’s heritage is Haitian. And so to her, I can only tip my hat and say: kouraj! Kenbe la, pa lage.