Naomi Osaka and the U.S. Open are on a collision course, set to intersect in the media capital of the world later this month for her sport’s biggest stage in this country. That could be a problem.
The test run came in Ohio on Monday, and it revealed a tennis superstar who still is at a fragile moment in her personal and professional lives.
Until watching what went down during her news conference at the Western & Southern Open, I was like many journalists when it came to her reluctance to participate in group interviews: It’s part of the job; deal with it.
But her unease in addressing a reasonable and respectfully posed question from the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Paul Daugherty was an eye-opener.
Whatever the reasons, Osaka is not in a healthy place when it comes to this format. Forcing her to go through with more of the same on an even bigger stage in Queens seems like a bad idea for now.
The purpose of news conferences is to inform fans, not to torture athletes.
It is difficult to convey the nuances of the exchange between Osaka and Daugherty in written form. I suggest watching the video in full.
Short version: Osaka, who withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon, was doing her first formal news conference in three months and comfortably answering questions posed remotely, including about her dislike of group interviews.
Then Daugherty’s turn came.
“You’re not crazy about dealing with us, especially in this format, yet you have a lot of outside interests that are served by having a media platform,” he said. “I guess my question is, how do you balance the two?”
It was not clear whether he was referring to her lucrative endorsement portfolio or political and social causes, or both.
Osaka twice asked Daugherty to clarify or repeat his question, and as she hesitated to respond, the moderator sought to move on to the next question. But Osaka continued.
She spoke of the added attention paid to her in part because of her background and finished with, “I’m not really sure how to balance the two. I’m figuring it out at the same time as you are.”
As the next reporter asked her questions – one about tennis and another about the recent earthquake in Haiti – Osaka first looked skyward, then wiped tears from her eyes, then lowered her cap visor over her face.
The moderator announced a break, and Osaka left the room for four minutes, during which she could be heard discussing whether to return.
Her agent, Stuart Duguid, later texted The New York Times, calling Daugherty’s behavior “appalling” and saying this:
“The bully at The Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now. Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong, and his sole purpose was to intimidate.”
No, actually, most journalists would regard his tone as normal and appropriate.
In a sympathetic column in Tuesday’s Enquirer, Daugherty praised Osaka for her thoughtful answer. But many within the bizarre, insular tennis world – even journalists – regarded the episode as an outrage. It was not.
Again: That does not mean Osaka must be forced to go through with this if it is an immediate threat to her emotional and mental well-being, which it seemed to be on Monday.
There are plenty of other players eager to fill notebooks and promote their brands and the sport.
Osaka, 23, returned to the news conference after she had composed herself, answering the questions about her tennis preparation and about her promise to donate her prize money this week to relief efforts in Haiti.
That was a good sign for both her and the sport.
Osaka begins play at the Western & Southern on Wednesday. The Open looms.
If all goes well for her in Flushing, she will win the tournament, summon the strength to talk about it publicly, then get on with the rest of her career and life.