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Playing The Media Game And Why Naomi Osaka Has Got it so Wrong

By Alix Ramsay

She is the highest earning sportswoman in the world; her net worth is estimated to be up to $55million (and growing by the month but only $19.7million of that is prize money) and she is clearly the best player on the planet at the moment, even if the Covid-affected rankings do not reflect that.

But Naomi Osaka doesn’t want to talk about that. Naomi Osaka doesn’t want to talk about anything.

As was widely reported on Wednesday, she will not give any press conferences during Roland Garros and, by the sounds of it, she has no intention of going through the rigmarole of pre-tournament, pre-match and post-match pressers again in the near future.

“I’m writing this to say I’m not doing any press during Roland Garros,” she announced on social media. “I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes [sic] mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one. We’re often sat there and asked questions 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.”

The reason that she has been the same question several times is because it is a different journalist who had asked that question each time. Yes, the previous answer may be on record but when your editor tells to ask the four-time grand slam champion something, however dull, you do it. Your mortgage depends upon it. Journos are not millionaires. We have bills to pay. Like normal people. Like the fans.

As for those “people who doubt her” – asking why she played poorly at a certain point (nerves? Injury? Lack of concentration?) is not doubting her. We all know she is very, very good so we ask what happened in that moment. We ask because the readers/listeners/fans want to know. We mere mortals have never been in that position so, please Naomi, tell us what it is like. We want to know.

Osaka makes her living by playing tennis – and playing it exceedingly well. The money she earns from tennis comes from the tickets sold at the tournaments, the TV and radio rights sold to broadcast those tournaments and the multitude of fans who buy the clothes, rackets and shoes that she is paid handsomely to endorse. And everyone learns of her talent and personality by what they read and hear in the media. In short, her chosen career is to be in the spotlight and the source of her fortune is her celebrity status. That status depends on her media profile.

As sport has crept out of the Covid shadows and the fans have been allowed back into the stands, the difference in the players in every sport has been remarkable. They play better, they fight harder, they bounce back from adversity more quickly.  They are back on the main stage and they are lapping up the applause of their adoring followers. And why not?

But Osaka wants it both ways. She wants the trappings that go with her success but she does not want to play the game that has made her so successful. To win matches is only part of the process; making herself available to the public is the price to be paid. The press is the conduit to that public.

Speaking to the media is just part of the job and the more accessible a player is, the better press they tend to get (we are easily pleased, us journos).

Roger Federer has always talked, win or lose, and he has talked well and thoughtfully. He gives every question due attention (even if he has heard it 1,000 times before or, indeed, if it has nothing whatsoever to do with him) and provides a good sound bite. As a result, he is regarded as a demi-god and in the event that a world leader should find him or herself indisposed, most people would be perfectly happy if Rodge took over. This is called playing the game.

Osaka was finding her voice during the lockdown, making important statements about race relations in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. When tennis returned at the end of last year, she had a reinforced platform to further her cause. And everyone listened. But the only reason she had that voice was because of her day job; because she was a highly ranked tennis player. And talking about the business of tennis is part of being a highly ranked tennis player. The media needs you to talk about it and the fans want you to.

Two days after her announcement just happened to media day at Roland Garros. The top brass all trooped in, answered their questions with good grace and then headed back to their hotels. As they all spoke, Osaka found herself in a minority of one due to her views.

“I understand her,” Rafa Nadal said, “but on the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who normally is traveling, who are writing the news and achievements that we are having around the world, probably we will not be the athletes that we are today. We don’t gonna have the recognition that we have around the world, and we will not be that popular, no?”

Others, from Iga Swiatek to Ash Barty to Daniil Medvedev, agreed: the press was part of the tennis world and had to be dealt with. They might as well make the best of it.

The best players understand this game with the media, even if it takes a while. John McEnroe could snarl and growl in pressers as a player but, these days, now that he is part of the media, he talks like it is going out of fashion – and it is good stuff, too. He knows the game.

Martina Navratilova knew the game, too.

A lifetime ago in Eastbourne, the press pack sat and watched as, day after day, the rain dripped off the seagulls. We all had Wimbledon previews to write, pages to fill and a daily tally of falling Brits to report upon (usually they came in on wild cards and were carried out on shutters). But nothing was happening on the court or off it.

Then the WTA wheeled in Martina to talk to us. Hurrah! Quotes from a famous person! We were in business. Fire up the tape recorders (this was a long time ago).

The British press corps, then a London-based mafia of middle-aged men in sports jackets, filled the front rows of the room while, at the back, a young reporter and photographer sat nervously. Martina answered every question that was asked from the front rows (she knew the mafia well) while the two at the back tried to catch her eye.

After 10 minutes or so, the conference was wrapped up and Martina made to leave. The mafia was heading off, too – it was lunchtime and there was a pub across the road that did a decent pint and a good sausage butty. “Phone the office and then a swift one before we start? Good plan.” We were happy.

Then Martina stopped. “You guys at the back – who are you? Did you want something?” They looked terrified. They were, they said, from the local Eastbourne paper and, if it was all right with her, they just wanted to know what she thought about Eastbourne as a town. If it was all right with her. They still looked terrified.

Martina sat down again, as did the mafia (grudgingly, and still dreaming of a pint and a sarnie). She must have wanted some lunch, too, but, regardless, she gave them a good three minutes of quotes about her first visit to Eastbourne, what she likes about the English seaside, her favourite memory and what she thought of the weather and fish and chips (none too keen on either). All the while, she kept smiling for the photographer. Then she checked that they had enough, thanked them for coming and disappeared for the day.

The next day the paper ran a double page spread giving chapter and verse about how Martina loved Eastbourne, all illustrated with smiley, cheery photos.

For days, the tournament had been dying on its feet. The fervent few had come, true enough, and they had sat in the pouring rain for a few hours before going home (we Brits are weird). But now, despite the lousy weather forecast, people came in more numbers. “Martina’s here. We might catch a glimpse even if it is raining. Come on, Mavis, let’s go down and get a ticket. Bring sandwiches.”

Those three minutes of Martina’s time had been worth every second – and Martina knew it. She was a pro then; she is now. She knows how to play the media game.

May be one day, Osaka will learn that talking to the media is how she makes her money.

If no one knew anything about her, if no one watched her live or on TV, the likes of Nike, Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer and even Frankies Bikinis wouldn’t give a jot about her. And they certainly wouldn’t spend $34million a year to get her to pose for the advertising campaigns.