Osaka French Open crisis nears breaking point in power struggle

PARIS: Japan’s Naomi Osaka serves the ball to Romania’s Patricia Maria Tig during their women’s singles first round tennis match on Day 1 of The Roland Garros 2021 French Open tennis tournament in Paris on Sunday. — AFP

PARIS: Despite facing expulsion from the French Open over a controversial media boycott, Naomi Osaka and her closest allies remained defiant yesterday with no sign of a resolution to what is becoming a bitter power struggle within the sport.

The Japanese star has already been fined $15,000 for not honoring media commitments following her opening round win at Roland Garros on Sunday. All four Grand Slams — the French, Australian and US Opens as well as Wimbledon — closed ranks to threaten her with potential suspension from future majors if she does not relent.

There is little indication that the 23-year-old, who claims press conferences are damaging for her mental health, intends to back down. “Anger is a lack of understanding. Change makes people uncomfortable,” she tweeted after hearing of her sanction.

Wim Fissette, the Belgian coach of the 23-year-old, said Osaka is “concerned with fundamental issues — she wants to bring about change”. “Naomi has the opportunity to use her status to address problems and to initiate things,” Fissette told German magazine Der Spiegel on Monday. “In the United States, athletes want more freedom in dealing with the press, so they are simply not threatened right away with punishment if they don’t feel well for a day.”

The crisis, which could come to a head tomorrow when Osaka plays her second round match, has sparked feverish reaction. Osaka’s sister, Mari, wrote on Reddit: “Naomi mentioned to me before the tournament that a family member had come up to her and remarked that she’s bad on clay. At every press conference she’s told she has a bad record on clay.

‘Not OK mentally’

“When she lost in Rome, she was not OK mentally. She was completely shattered and I think everyone’s remarks and opinions have gotten to her head and she herself believed that she was bad on clay.”

Mari, a former tour player, later posted a follow-up message after herself receiving criticism for the wording of her original statement. “My message has gone horribly wrong with people struggling for mental health. I hadn’t realized that Naomi had a lot of shit to deal with and was fighting very honestly for the cause of mental health. Now people are reacting like ‘she can’t stand criticism’. Sorry Naomi, I probably made it worse.”

US tennis legend Billie Jean King attempted to strike a conciliatory tone, claiming that the media, while playing a crucial role in the sport “needs to respect certain boundaries”. Even the French Open official website came under fire for what was perceived as a direct criticism of Osaka when it tweeted photos of Rafael Nadal, Kei Nishikori, Aryna Sabalenka and Coco Gauff all smiling under the caption: ‘They understood the assignment’.

Former world doubles number one Rennae Stubbs described the post as “some serious shade”. “Making a player feel guilty & humiliating her is NOT a good look for a tennis fed,” Stubbs said. Media boycotts at sports tournaments are not new.

American football star Marshawn Lynch, when once threatened with a heavy fine if he skipped a Super Bowl press briefing, responded to 20 questions from reporters by replying: “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.”

Grand Slam tennis has witnessed a number of high-profile defaults over the years. Novak Djokovic was disqualified from the US Open last year for hitting a line judge with a ball. John McEnroe was booted out of the 1990 Australian Open while Jeff Tarango was defaulted at Wimbledon in 1995 after a furious rant when he accused the umpire of being “one of the most corrupt officials in the game”. — AFP

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