Naomi Osaka and the changing dynamics of strength in sports


Thirteen sentences.

That’s all we got from Naomi Osaka like her bowed from the French Open on Monday after she caused confusion about her plan to skip press conferences after the game.

She didn’t say those sentences. They were posted on her Instagram account. Nor did she provide something like a deep explanation. A global icon at the age of 23, Osaka did not know when she would return to the women’s tour. She first discovered that she had been battling depression ever since defeating Serena Williams in a controversial-covered final at the 2018 U.S. Open.

Thirteen sentences.

That was all she needed to shake the sports world and provide another lesson about the growing power of athletes to accept their message and set their own terms.

She stepped briefly into the water, let out a splash, and backed away.

Using social media posts, first last Wednesday and then Monday, Osaka called it one of the most traditional practices in major sports: a mandatory press conference, vital for journalists seeking insight into their stories but long considered by many elite athletes to be walking in boards.

Later monumental victories and heavy losses, Osaka giggled and reflected at press conferences, and also dissolved into tears. In Paris, she said she did not want to have anything to do with the gatherings because they required great emotional damage.

So in her thin posts she sent a message of considerable weight:

The days of the Grand Slam tournament and the huge media machine behind them that holds all the significance are over.

In a predominantly white sport, ritually tied, power is held by a young woman of black and Asian descent, her self-confidence still growing on and off the field.

Get used to something.

Intentionally or not, Osaka stands on the leading edge of a broad, transformational movement in empowering athletes. What she does with this role will say a lot about the change of power, for better or worse.

This is clear. By leaving the French Open as it did, Osaka has become an obsession in the sports world and far beyond.

Experts, fans, fellow players and people who usually care little about athletes analyze her motivations. They take care of her future in tennis and, of course, her mental health.

They project what they want onto it and claim accordingly.

Some commentators say the press dissects athletes too far. Others say Osaka is somehow symbolic of a new, over-embraced race of stars.

Others suggest she is battling racial isolation, a rare color champion in a tennis world dominated by fans, officials and a predominantly white corps of journalists.

One post on social media, which evaluates Osaka’s refusal to play after the first round of the French Open, compared her to Malcolm X.

And yet, once again, as befits a celebrity in our time, Osaka has taken a minimalist approach. Thirteen sentences, just under 350 words, are all there is to parse fans and enemies.

It is impossible to know the depth of Osaka’s internal torments.

But we know that it was difficult for her to cope on the world stage in her youth.

“It’s true that I’ve suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I’ve really had a hard time dealing with it,” she wrote, noting that she often wears headphones at tournaments to “dull my social anxiety.”

She arrived in France committed to underlining the lines and participating in a power game with tennis officials who find it difficult to tolerate anything that disrupts the status quo.

When Osaka took to social media last week and announced that it would not attend press conferences after the matches, powerful game brokers supported them, fined them $ 15,000 and threatened to suspend her.

Did she stop coming back to them, to show that she had the strength, not them?

We don’t know because Osaka hasn’t elaborated and is definitely not talking to reporters.

That befits – and upsets the journalist – because like many of the biggest stars of modern sport, Osaka is now much more than an athlete.

She lives in the world of celebrities where her idol Serena Williams lives. Osaka is known not only for the four Grand Slam titles it has won since 2018 or because it has made the $ 37.4 million it has earned over the past year the highest paid athlete in the world.

Its origin – raised primarily in the United States by a Japanese mother and father Afro-Haiti – gives her a strong attraction. Add to the mix a disarming personality and a willingness to engage in conflict over social issues that arose during the pandemic, and it has become the latest tennis tennis.

It is therefore not surprising that she feels less need to deal with the traditional press.

Such is the way a modern celebrity is – be she an athlete, an entertainer, a business tycoon or a political leader. They all look for detours, ways to tell their stories as they please, usually in short bursts, offering small tendrils of their lives and their opinions, their triumphs and pain, often without the depth that comes from great journalism.

It wasn’t always like that. Consider the powerful insights that Muhammad Ali gave in interviews with David Frost – meditations in which Ali opened up about race, power, civil rights, and the Vietnam War. In tennis, Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe would talk at length about the most important topics. You knew not only where they were, but also their motivations, the evolution of their thinking and their vision of the future.

Athletes still talk, but they do so on their own terms – very often limited to 280 characters on Twitter.

One of the highlights of the sport in 2020 was Osaka’s willingness to go against the grain in tennis and take a stand against racial injustice. She decided not to play one day at last summer’s tournament in protest of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, saying on social media, “Before I become an athlete, I’m black.”

A point is made. Message delivered. The tournament was paused for one day, allowing Osaka to keep its promise without completing its tasks.

She then went to the US Open and recaptured the conversation. This time it was with the masks she wore – adorned with the names of black victims of racist violence – as she went out on the field for each of the seven matches she played on her way to winning the tournament.

“What message did you want to send?” they asked her.

“So, what message did you get?” she responded in a cordial, simple, and profound way. “I feel the point is to get people to start talking.”

And that was it. She took a moment to clip, directing the conversation by giving up a little and turning the question to herself.

What is the message you received? What do you, a fan, a reporter in a media argument, a casual observer, see on me?

Whatever it is, deal with it.

She said a similar thing this week in Paris, saying this time in 13 spare sentences. A strong statement, no doubt, and one that fits the tone and technology of today, but count me among those who want to hear more.

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