Naomi Osaka’s return Monday to the traditional tennis tournament news conference format, after a break that began with her withdrawal from the French Open, was a tearful one. It included a question about mental health and another about the earthquake in Haiti, her father’s native country.
Osaka, who is preparing for her first Grand Slam tournament since winning the Australian Open in February, spoke of being “proud of what I did” and said “it needed to be done” when she spoke about mental health challenges after refusing to do news conferences in Paris. She withdrew from the French Open in late May and skipped Wimbledon before playing for Japan in the Tokyo Olympics.
Paul Daugherty, a Cincinnati Enquirer columnist, asked how Osaka was balancing her feelings about news conferences with her interest in promoting causes such as earthquake relief, something she had done in a tweet Saturday evening.
“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,” Daugherty began. “I guess my question is, how do you balance the two and also do you have anything you’d like to share with us about what you did say to Simone Biles [who brought mental health to the forefront at the Tokyo Olympics]?”
Osaka asked, “When you say I’m ‘not crazy about dealing with’ you guys, what does that refer to?”
He replied: “You’ve stated that you don’t especially like the news conference format, yet that seems to be obviously the most widely used means of communicating to the media and through the media to the public.”
Osaka cautiously responded: “Hmm, that’s interesting. I would say the occasion, like when to do the press conferences, is what I feel is the most difficult, but [pause] hmmm [long pause]. Sorry, I’m thinking [another long pause].”
The news conference moderator offered to move on to another question, but Osaka declined, saying, “I’m actually very interested in, like, that point of view, so if you could repeat that, that would be awesome.”
Daugherty did so. “The question was that you’re not especially fond of dealing with the media, especially in this format. You’ve suggested there are better ways to do it, and we’d like to try to explore that. My question, I guess, was, you also have outside interests beyond tennis that are served by having the platform that the media presents to you. My question is how do you think you might be able to best balance the two?”
Osaka offered a thoughtful response.
“For me, I feel like this is something that — I can’t really speak for everybody, I can only speak for myself — but ever since I was younger, I’ve had a lot of media interest on me, and I think it’s because of my background as well as, you know, how I play, because in the first place I am a tennis player, that’s why a lot of people are interested in me,” she said. “So I would say, in that regards I’m quite different to a lot of people and I can’t really help that there are some things that I tweet or some things that I say that kind of create a lot of news articles or things like that. And I know that it’s because I’ve won [four] Grand Slams and I’ve gotten to do a lot of press conferences that these things happen. But I would also say, I’m not really sure how to balance the two. I am figuring out at the same time as you are, I would say.”
Another reporter began a two-pronged question about her preparation for the hard-court season and the Haitian earthquake. Osaka appeared uncomfortable, looking up and down and wiping her eyes as she pulled her cap low over her face. The reporter apologized, but Osaka said, “No, you’re super good” as she wiped her eyes again and sighed. The moderator called for a “quick break.”
She returned to the podium after a brief break and before switching to answering questions in Japanese, she addressed the situation in Haiti, where at least 1,419 people have died.
“I feel like I’m not really doing that much, like I could do more. I’m trying to figure out what I can do and where exactly to put my energy into,” she said. “I would say like the prize money thing is like the first thing that I thought of that I could do that would raise the most awareness. I guess that’s the reason why I announced it.
“It’s really scary. I see the news every day, and honestly the earthquake was kind of close to my parents’ school there, so I’m honestly not sure how that’s doing and I haven’t seen any pictures or video of it yet.”
Osaka’s agent, Stuart Duguid, lashed out at Daugherty after the news conference. “The bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player/media relations are so fraught right now,” he told the New York Times. “Everyone on that Zoom will agree that his tone was all wrong and his sole purpose was to intimidate. Really appalling behavior. And this insinuation that Naomi owes her off court success to the media is a myth — don’t be so self-indulgent.”
In his column, however, Daugherty called Osaka’s responses “honest, thoughtful … and unlike any answer I’ve ever gotten in 34 years covering sports in Cincinnati.”
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