Naomi Osaka will not speak to French Open press due to mental health impact

Naomi Osaka has surprised the tennis world by declaring days before the start of the French Open that she will not conduct her mandatory media assignments during the tournament. Osaka, the world No 2, cited the effects of reporters’ questions in press conferences on her mental health.

“I’m writing this to say I’m not going to do any press during Roland Garros,” said Osaka in a statement posted to her social media accounts. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We are often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

Osaka’s announcement has forced the French Tennis Federation (FFT) to conduct discussions regarding how to handle her intended rule breach. The four-time grand slam champion further explained her reason for foregoing press conferences and she acknowledged the “considerable fine” she may receive after each match.

“Me not doing press is nothing personal to the tournament and a couple journalists have interviewed me since I was young so I have a friendly relationship with most of them,” she wrote. “However, if the organisations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”

Gilles Moretton, the president of the FFT responded firmly to Osaka’s statement on Thursday by saying that she will be fined if she does not attend her mandatory press conferences.

“It’s a deep regret, for you journalists, for her [Osaka] personally and for tennis in general,” he said, according to l’Equipe. “I think this is a phenomenal mistake. It shows to what extent today there is strong governance in tennis. What is happening there is, in my opinion, not acceptable. There are rules, laws. We will stick to the laws and rules for penalties and fines.”

Moretton continued: “It is very detrimental to sport, to tennis, to her probably. She hits the game, she hurts tennis. This is a real problem.”

The grand slam rules dictate that press conferences are mandatory and players can be fined up to $20k for missing any of them. Although not a common occurrence, players will occasionally opt to simply take the fine after particularly bruising losses. World No 1 Novak Djokovic did so after he was disqualified from the fourth round of last year’s US Open because he accidentally struck a ball at the neck of a lineswoman.

Likewise, between 2015 and 2016 seven-time grand slam champion Venus Williams opted not to conduct numerous press conferences. The previous fines have rarely approached the maximum: Djokovic received a $7,500 fine for not doing press after the US Open disqualification. Venus Williams has received fines of $3,000 and $5,000.

Incidentally, Williams was one of the first celebrities to comment on Osaka’s Instagram statement: “Girl, do you,” she wrote. “Your life is yours to live!” Others, including Nicki Minaj and Janelle Monae, have since commented in support.

Despite previous examples of players not attending press conferences, Osaka’s planned decision to opt out of press conferences is unprecedented and it may have the effect of generating even more attention than press conferences throughout her time in the event. Should the tours choose not to fine Osaka for each match she competes in, it could open the door for other players to do the same.

After her announcement, Osaka posted the video of the former NFL player Marshawn Lynch on instagram, who famously responded to questions in a press conference by stating: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined”. Osaka’s decision not to interact with the media has also been seen in other US sports, with other stars preferring to interact directly with their supporters. This season, the NBA star Kyrie Irving has been separately fined $25,000 and $35,000 for breaching media protocols.

“I’ve had enough of someone else’s propaganda,” he wrote in a statement last year. “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against.” He concluded his statement: “I do not talk to pawns. My attention is worth more.” Irving said that he hoped his fines would go to marginalised communities. Osaka similarly concluded by hoping that her money would be sent to a mental health charity.

Over the past eight months, Osaka has risen to a new level of prominence after winning her last two grand slams at the US Open and Australian Open. Despite her success on hard courts, Osaka has enjoyed less success on the clay and she arrives in Paris having lost in the second round of the Madrid Open and in her opening match at the Italian Open in Rome.

On Tuesday, the publication Sportico listed Osaka as the 15th highest earning athlete in the world with an estimated record $55.2 million in earnings over the previous 12 months. She would have few problems with any fines levied on her.