Naomi Osaka and the perilous popularity of fringe sports
This weekend the French Open was won by Barbora Krejčíková. If you were a die-hard tennis fan, you might have known she was an accomplished doubles player. She had quietly risen the singles ranks, up to 33rd right before the tournament. Her shocking victory barely made a splash.
Perhaps, the women's final was always going to be overshadowed by the iconic battle between Djokovic and Nadal the day before. The French Open Twitter account tweeted out photos from the trophy photo shoot afterward. Novak Djokovic's tweet got 3x the engagement that Krejčíková's did.
In the previous weeks, I argued that the French Open ultimately wants players like Naomi Osaka there. As one of the most popular players, she is good for the business of tennis. They probably knew that the public was going to be on Osaka's side. Then why did the French Open threaten to default her for skipping press conferences? Was it because the tournament directors were racist? It's entirely possible. After all, they were the ones who caused the drama with Serena's catsuit. However, I do not think it is the most significant underlying factor.
While players have had one-off press conference skips, skipping many in a row was uncharted territory. This is one reason I think Naomi was brave in her choice to speak up in this way. As a big tennis fan, I've watched press conferences as well as read press transcripts for nearly 18 years. Almost all players are subjected to lazy, rude, and invasive questioning. However, women and especially women of color, are also subjected to sexist and racist questions. I can, especially how if someone was in a delicate mental state, these press conferences could be crushing.
While I support Naomi's decision, I also believe the tournament had no choice in determining that further boycotts could lead to a default. Players are more affluent and more influential than ever. The tournaments had to take a firm stance to maintain their power. If they continued to let players dictate the rules, their influence further becomes eroded.
You also cannot ignore the media dynamic. This NYTimes article mentions how media presence at major tennis tournaments is declining. Many of Tennis' biggest stars are at the twilight of their careers. To some degree, I think the tournaments worry there will be retaliation by the media if access to the hottest young star would be limited.
The least cynical reason perhaps is that if they allowed her to stay in the tournament by just paying the fines, the less wealthy players would be crying out that it wasn't fair. They may also hate attending pressers but not financially take the burden of not attending them.
This begets the question, why do we even have press conferences in the first place?
This is what I feel most conflicted about. Besides tennis, I also watch professional cycling. The biggest stars of cycling could be considered rich but cycling is considered poor compared other sports. Many riders cannot make a living full-time living riding bikes. On the women's side, the situation is even direr. Most women riding professionally don't make enough money to make it their full-time occupation.
Why is there such a big difference between men's and women's cycling. Nobody wakes up and says I'm only going to be interested in men's cycling. The biggest root reason is that there is very little media coverage of the women's races compared to men's races.
Tennis used to have similar issues. Billie Jean King has spoken up about how they would beg for media coverage in her tennis days.
As much as I support Osaka's battle, I think it's important to remember that it's never so simple. As a tennis fan, I think the best outcome would be to improve press conferences. Make a zero-tolerance policy for bad reporters. Yank the credentials of reporters who ask sexist, racist questions, and then maybe they won't be so much of a chore. Perhaps, all the outrage on behalf of Naomi will lead to something good.