PARIS – Naomi Osaka’s return to Roland Garros was triumphant by winning her first-round match against Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday in straight sets. But Osaka did not come out of the tournament’s opening day unscathed.
She was fined $ 15,000 by the Roland Garros tournament referee for refusing to appear at a mandatory post-match press conference and warned she faced stiffer penalties, including failure of the tournament, if it continued to fail to meet its media obligations.
This surprisingly harsh warning was delivered in a declaration signed by the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments: Gilles Moretton, the new president of the French Tennis Federation; Mike McNulty, the new head of the United States Tennis Association; Jayne Hrdlicka, Head of Tennis Australia; and Ian Hewitt, president of the All England Club, which runs Wimbledon.
Leaders of the Grand Slam events also pointed out that repeated violations of Osaka could result in “larger fines and future suspensions of the Grand Slam.”
Osaka, a four-time major singles champion and one of the sport’s biggest stars, now has to make a choice. Before the start of Roland Garros, she announced that she would not be doing “any press” during the tournament, citing the need to preserve her “sanity” by avoiding repetitive and potentially negative questions from journalists.
But if the intention was to limit distractions and find inner calm, she now faces potentially greater concern in Paris if she continues to refrain from press conferences.
Grand Slam leaders expressed frustration over Osaka’s lack of engagement with tennis officials, explaining in their statement that the Roland Garros management team had “ tried in vain to speak to him to verify his well-being, understand the specifics of their problem and what could be done to remedy it on the spot. “
Grand Slam leaders said they wrote jointly to Osaka reminding them of their obligations and the consequences they face for not complying with the rules. The leaders also stressed the importance of equal treatment.
“We want to stress that rules are in place to ensure that all players are treated exactly the same, regardless of their stature, beliefs or achievements,” the statement said. “As a sport, there is nothing more important than making sure that no player has an unfair advantage over another, which is unfortunately the case in this situation if a player refuses to devote time to participate in media engagements while others honor all of their engagements. ”
Leading players such as Andre Agassi, Venus Williams and Novak Djokovic skipped press conferences after losses and were fined. But this is the first time that a top player has made it clear in advance that she has no plans to speak to the media at a Grand Slam tournament.
Osaka, which is based in the United States and represents Japan, is the highest paid female athlete in the world, most of its income comes from referrals. She raised her profile not only by winning major titles, but by advocating social justice; she wore masks that paid tribute to black victims of violence, including police violence, after games at the United States Open last year.
In general, she had a positive relationship with the news media. But in her social media announcement ahead of the French Open, she said: “I have often felt that people don’t care about the mental health of athletes, and it rings very true every time I see or attend a press conference.
Osaka, whose decision surprised some members of her own support team, has not said if she has a specific mental health issue, but has made it clear. social media posts that she was anxious to take a stand. “If organizations think they can just keep saying ‘Pressure or you are going to be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes who are the centerpiece of their cooperation, then I just have to laugh. .
Grand Slam management stressed the importance of players’ mental health on Sunday, saying it was “of the utmost importance”.
“We individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to the well-being of players,” the statement said. “However, to continue to improve, we need the engagement of players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences.”
No major player has yet publicly expressed a desire to follow Osaka’s lead by skipping press conferences. The biggest stars of the previous generation – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams – regularly answered questions after every game.
Tennis executives fear Osaka is setting a precedent at a time when social media has given stars a broad platform to reach audiences directly. But Grand Slam leaders stressed that the news media still played an important role.
“A central element of the Grand Slam rules is the players’ responsibility to engage with the media, regardless of the outcome of their match, a responsibility that the players take on for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves. “, indicates their press release. . “These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their point of view and the players to tell their story. The facilitation of media to a wide range of channels, both traditional and digital, is a major contributor to the development and growth of our sport and the fan base of individual players.
Osaka did not remain silent following their 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over Tig on the Philippe Chatrier main court on Sunday. She answered three questions from on-field interviewer Fabrice Santoro after the match and a few other questions when leaving the field of Wowow, the Japanese broadcaster with whom she is under contract.
But she refused all other TV requests and skipped the press conference. As the highest paid female athlete, she can afford the $ 15,000 fine and other fines that could befall her. The bigger question is whether she wants to risk jeopardizing her participation at Roland Garros. She wrestled on clay and never made it past the third round in Paris, but the tournament remains one of the mainstays of the sport.
The next chance to escalate or defuse the tension comes in the second round on Wednesday against Ana Bogdan of Romania.