If ‘public speaking’ worries your kid, would you force her to speak?

Thoughts on Naomi Osaka’s French Open stand

Jun 4 · 8 min read
Not everyone is comfortable with facing the mike. (Image courtesy mykhel.com)

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When I first heard about the tennis star, Naomi Osaka, refusing to attend the post-match interview at Roland Garros because of mental stress, I was a bit taken aback. After all, sports is all about mind games. If Naomi is playing a match, loses the first set, and goes down a break or two in the second, she needs to have an almost superhuman mental strength to make a comeback. Isn’t that what sports are all about?

But on thinking it over, I realized that I wasn’t being fair to Naomi.

Double Standards

My daughter has been speaking, singing, dancing, playing music on stage since she was a baby. But there is some level of anxiety, almost always. So I would never dream of forcing her to take a public stage if she wasn’t comfortable about doing it. We might encourage her to overcome her anxiety but the final decision has always been up to her.

Having a different standard for Naomi Osaka is wrong at this basic level, and let’s not even get into complications of mental illness, depression, etc.

The Price of Being a Professional

The argument against that is Naomi makes her living from tennis. And tennis makes the money to pay her from the fans who pay to watch the sports. Those fans come because they are interested in the player/sport. Therefore, tennis players have a responsibility to give back to the sport by entertaining the fans so they keep them coming back for more. (For instance, I am a basketball fan, and I paid for an NBA League Pass, because the playoffs, the NBA season highlights, are happening, and I’ll keep coming back for more as I’m hoping someone can slay the three-headed monster that is the Brooklyn Nets).

My counter to that is there are two levels to entertaining the fans. One is playing the game at a high level, and the other is the media story around the players and teams or whatever.

Having played tennis at a less demanding club level, I know how painful it is to play with an injury or push myself through a match in tough conditions. Every time Naomi plays, she is sacrificing her body, risking long-term injuries, and handling the mental and emotional stress of the mind games in a match. And she does all this while coming up with exceptional performances that have made her the second-ranked woman tennis player in the world.

So my argument is her fans get their money’s worth every time Naomi plays. Yes, she may be making millions on and off the court, but she is earning it the hard way. Why add the burden of media duties to a tennis player?

Media is what pays the bills

The counter to that argument is that the media hypes up the interest in a match or a player and exponentially increases fans who will pay to watch the sport. That is what makes those million-dollar paydays for tennis players possible.

The problem is at post-match sessions, journalists often deliberately provoke a player to get him or her to give a controversial reply. This is good for the press as negative headlines sell. But it gets the players into trouble as they say things they may not mean. This is especially likely to happen when a player has lost a match, and is in a vulnerable position, and may say something about the opponent or umpiring that he or she would not say if they were in a more calm frame of mind. French tennis player Gael Monfils was driven to tears at one such post-match interview:

Devastating Start as a Grand Slam Winner

I have been following Naomi’s career from when she first started making waves. She came across as a reserved person, and I felt she was going to have a tough time with press conferences. That first win over Serena at the US Open when she was booed for no fault of hers and was so devastating that she ended up apologizing for having won the match.

“I’m sorry… I know that everyone was cheering for her, and I am sorry it had to end like this. I just want to say thank you for watching the match.”

Every player has such big dreams about their first Grand Slam win, and that shambles of a match would have been hard for even a seasoned professional to take.

Courage is overcoming your fears

However, Naomi surprised me by how she overcame her fears, managed her anxieties about public speaking, and came across as a funny, yet honest, intelligent, and caring personality. It’s that desire to do something beyond tennis that made her create her series of Black Lives Matter masks.

Picture Courtesy: IndianDailyPost.com

Using Her Voice

I’m sure Naomi decided to take a stand on this media issue because she knew she had a voice and it would be heard, unlike the many less successful tennis players who are regularly hounded by the media. Being the bright young person that she is, she must have thought that winning the ‘Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year 2021’ made it just the right moment to act.

Naomi Osaka with other Laureus World Sports Awards Winners 2021

Why Naomi didn’t get the support of other tennis players

Naomi offered to pay fines for not keeping up her media commitments and requested these be diverted to some charity. She ended up actually paying $15,000 (₹11 lakhs) as a fine for avoiding her first-round post-match interview at Roland Garros. This was before the tennis authorities threatened to disqualify her, and she quit the tournament in response.

The question is how many tennis players can afford to pay such huge fines to avoid post-match interviews? All that will happen is that the average tennis player will have to attend the interview while richer players can avoid doing so. Naomi has a valid argument but that flaw means her approach of paying fines was a bad idea. The rules have to be the same for everyone.

Naomi came off as someone misusing her privilege of wealth to get an unfair advantage, and this may be why many tennis players didn’t stand with her, and the tennis authorities threatened her with disqualification.

Missed Opportunities

Naomi had written to the tennis authorities that she was willing to sit down and have a chat with them after the tournament.

So I’m surprised that no one had the sense to at least call her and tell her she had put the association in a difficult position as it would reflect badly if they accepted her offer to pay her way out of attending the media sessions.

Naomi is sensitive and would have been appalled at the possibility of her actions being misinterpreted as that of an entitled and privileged brat. She might even have temporarily called off her boycott of the media sessions.

Methinks the tennis bigwigs acted in haste.

(Update: It seems the tennis bigwigs did try to get in touch with Naomi but she wouldn’t meet them. A quote from her original tweet may explain this.
“I would be more than happy to speak with them (tennis officials) after the tournament as the Slams are intense.” I must add that after rereading her above comment, I’m beginning to wonder if Naomi is aware of the old Cherokee story of the two wolves.)

Making media duties mandatory is illogical

If a soldier goes to war and gets beaten up and tortured, we don’t expect him to come back and give interviews about the experience. Yet, we have no qualms about asking these very same questions of a sportsperson, and that too without giving them time to recover their composure when they are beaten and down.

Media is evolving

Players now are directly in touch with their fans on social media. They can express their opinions, pick and choose which fan questions they wish to answer, and when they wish to answer them, or maybe use social media as a platform to make some additional income money by tying up with brands who wish to advertise. The point is they have a larger degree of control over what they are saying about themselves.

Make post-match interviews optional for players

I think the authorities can make on-court post-match interviews mandatory as those interviewers are usually ex-players, and they are not looking to bait the players into making controversial comments.

However, the post-match with journalists should be made optional. I admit we will miss those sessions if they are permanently discontinued. The thing is people are different. Many players are aligned with the tennis authorities' view that it’s part of their professional obligations as players to meet with the media and give them something to write about to help the sport connect with the fans, and hence generate more income.

We all know people who are comfortable on the public stage as if they were born for it. It’s the same with sports. Roger Federer for instance, casually chats and laughs with the media in two or three languages. Maybe it comes from his years of taking interviews. But quite a few players are comfortable with media, and actually use the post-match interviews to their advantage. Others may have issues with the media sessions but have worked out their own coping mechanisms, like Venus Williams for instance.

“For me personally, how I deal with it was that I know every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will,” Williams said. “So no matter what you say or what you write, you’ll never light a candle to me. So that’s how I deal with it. But each person deals with it differently.”

That last sentence is the key. People are different. Some players are just not comfortable about facing the media, and they should not be forced to do so.

With Wimbledon and the Olympics happening shortly, I hope Naomi changes her mind. And I hope the tennis authorities give her some way to do so without losing face. After all, she has already succeeded in drawing attention to the issue, which was what she wanted to do in the first place.

As the old saying goes, change is inevitable.

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