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Naomi Osaka and the changing force dynamics in sports


Thirteen sentences.

That’s all we got from Naomi Osaka when she said goodbye to the French Open on Monday after causing a stir over her plan to skip post-game press conferences.

She did not speak these sentences. They were posted on her Instagram account. Nor did it provide anything like a profound explanation. By the age of 23, Osaka was a global icon, leaving it unclear when she would return to the women’s tour. She first revealed she had struggled with depression since beating Serena Williams in a controversial final at the 2018 United States Open.

Thirteen sentences.

That was all it took to rock the sports world and give another lesson in the increasing power of athletes to get their message across and set their terms.

She waded into the water for a moment, made a splash, and stepped away.

With social media posts, Osaka only called on one of the most traditional practices in the major sports last Wednesday and then on Monday: the mandatory press conference, which is important for reporters looking for insights into their stories, but long considered plank by many top athletes. Walk to be viewed.

After monumental victories and heavy losses, Osaka has giggled and thought about press conferences and also dissolved in tears. In Paris, she said she did not want to have anything to do with the gatherings because they had taken a heavy emotional toll.

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

The days of the Grand Slam tournaments and the huge media machinery behind them are over.

In a predominantly white, ritual sport, a gently caressing young woman of black and Asian descent, whose self-confidence is still developing on and off the pitch, holds power.

To get used to something.

Purposely or not, Osaka is at the forefront of a broad, transformative movement for athlete empowerment. What she does with this role says a lot about the power shift, for better or for worse.

That much is clear. By the time she left the French Open, Osaka became an obsession in the sports world and far beyond.

Experts, fans, teammates and people who normally don’t care about athletes analyze their motivations. They worry about their future in tennis and of course their mental health.

They project what they want onto them and argue accordingly.

Some commentators say the press goes too far in dissecting athletes. Others say Osaka is somehow a symbol of a new, far too pampered kind of star.

Still others suggest fighting racial isolation, the rare champion of color in a tennis world dominated by fans, officials and a predominantly white press corps.

A social media post evaluating Osaka’s refusal to play past the first round of the French Open compared her to Malcolm X.

And yet, as befits a contemporary celebrity, Osaka has taken a minimalist approach. Thirteen sentences, just under 350 words, are all that fans and enemies can analyze.

It is impossible to know the depth of Osaka’s inner fear.

But we do know that at a young age she struggled to get by on the world stage.

“The truth is, I’ve had long periods of depression since the 2018 US Open and had a really hard time dealing with it,” she wrote before noticing that she often wears headphones to tournaments to “ease my social anxiety.” ”

She arrived in France to draw a line and play a power game with tennis officials who are struggling with anything that disrupts the status quo.

When Osaka went on social media last week to announce that she would not be attending post-game press conferences, the game’s power brokers backed her up, fined her $ 15,000 and threatened her with a ban.

Did she quit to avenge them, to show that she’s got the punch and not her?

We don’t know because Osaka didn’t elaborate on it and she definitely doesn’t speak to reporters.

That’s fitting – and worrying to a journalist – because, like so many of the greatest stars in modern sport, Osaka is much more than just an athlete today.

She lives in the world of celebrity inhabited by her idol Serena Williams. Osaka is not only famous for the four Grand Slam titles she has won since 2018, or because she made her the highest paid female athlete in the world with $ 37.4 million made in the past year.

Her background – raised mainly in the United States by a Japanese mother and an Afro-Hait father – gives her a strong pull. Add a disarming personality and a willingness to engage with social issues raised during the pandemic to the mix and she has become tennis’s newest supernova.

So it’s no wonder that she has to deal less with the traditional press.

This is the path of modern celebrity – be it an athlete, an entertainer, a business tycoon, or a political leader. They all look for workarounds, for ways to tell their stories the way they prefer, usually in short bursts, and offer tiny tendrils of their lives and opinions, triumphs and pain, often without the depth that great journalism brings originates.

It was not always like this. Think of the powerful insights 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 discussed the most pressing issues at length. They not only knew where they stood, but also about their motivations, the development of their thinking and their visions of the future.

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

One of the sporting highlights of 2020 was Osaka’s willingness to go against the current in tennis and take a stand against racial injustice. Deciding last summer not to play in a tournament one day to protest the Wisconsin police shooting of Jacob Blake, she said on social media, “Before I’m an athlete, I’m a black woman.”

Point made. Message delivered. The tournament was suspended for a day so Osaka could keep its promise without falling into default.

She then went to the US Open and picked up the conversation again. This time, she wore the masks – adorned with the names of black victims of racial violence – as she went to court for each of the seven games she played on her way to winning the tournament.

“What was the message you wanted to send?” she was asked.

“Well what was the message you got?” she replied in a warm, simple, and profound way. “I feel like it’s about getting people to talk.”

And that was it. She used the moment with a snippet, steered the conversation by giving up little and asking the question back to itself.

What was the message you got? What do you see, the fan, the reporter in the media scrum, the casual observer, in me?

Whatever it is, take care of it.

She said something similar this week in Paris, this time in 13 free sentences. Without a doubt a strong statement that fits the tone and technology of today, but counts me among those who want to hear more.

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