The ironic downside of opting out of press commitments: It only makes journalists more curious to hear from you.
When Naomi Osaka announced her withdrawal from the French Open Monday, after being threatened with disqualification for skipping media obligations following her first-round win, she wrote about her bouts with depression and the anxiety she feels from press conferences. She said stepping away was “the best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being… so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris.” However, her decision has loomed over the event’s opening rounds, if not the entire sporting community, as corporations, politicians and superstars from around the globe weighed in this week.
The final line of her announcement—“I’ll see you when I see you”—left followers wondering just when Osaka might return. Wimbledon starts at the end of the month and finishes less than two weeks before Japanese athletes will stride into the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo for the Games’ Opening Ceremony. Osaka has been a contender to carry the host nation’s flag and was set to be one of the event’s most marketable stars on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
If she does compete this summer, Osaka could find the press situation at the Olympics more tolerable. At the Games, all athletes are required to walk through a so-called “Mixed Zone,” where reporters can question competitors in a more informal setting. “[Athletes] are encouraged to participate in interviews,” according to past Olympic rules. “However they are not obliged to answer questions.” (COVID-19 related changes to the setup have not been announced. At a recent test event, the mixed zone was scrapped for an online press session, while another test used a modified area.)
At the 2012 Games in London, IOC adviser Susan Polakoff recalled tennis players quickly taking a liking to that model over the required press conferences that come with other major events. “I remember Serena Williams saying, ‘This is great. I love this,’” said Polakoff, who is also the owner of Polakoff Communications.
Only medalists are automatically scheduled to do a full press conference. Polakoff said she wasn’t sure what the penalty would be for skipping that; she’s worked 15 Olympiads and couldn’t recall an athlete opting out. “It’s the best moment of your life,” she said.
Individual countries and sponsors often set up additional press availabilities for their athletes, though it’s unlikely they would force one of their own to attend.
Osaka’s agent declined to comment about her plans for this summer, but in a piece for Nikkei Asia in April, the 23-year-old wrote, “No one will be prouder than me when I compete for Japan in the Olympics later this year.”
Though she was raised in the U.S., having moved from Japan when she was three, Osaka has always maintained a strong allegiance to her birthplace. Japanese officials have backed the star this week, with Japan Tennis Association executive director Toshihisa Tsuchihashi releasing a statement that said, “The first thing to be considered is Ms. Osaka’s health.”
At a news conference, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato reportedly said he would “watch over her quietly.” U.S. swimming star Michael Phelps, who knows about dealing with mental health issues under the Olympic spotlight, also supported Osaka.
“When I first read [Osaka’s statement], I was so happy,” Phelps told CNN. “I don’t know if I would’ve been able to take my own words and put them on a platform for everybody to see.”