Naomi Osaka briefly stepped away from a pre-tournament video news conference Monday ahead of the Western & Southern Open, her first media session since representing Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
A reporter asked how Osaka’s training for the upcoming hard-court season was progressing and for her thoughts on the events in Haiti, where a 7.2 magnitude earthquake on Saturday has left more than 1,300 dead. Osaka’s father, Leonard Francois, is a native of Haiti, and she pledged to donate her winnings from the tournament to help the country.
Osaka put her head down and was fighting back tears as the reporter said, “Sorry.” The tennis star responded with, “No, you’re super-good,” but the news conference moderator asked for a quick break before continuing.
After stepping away for four minutes, the news conference moderator and Osaka could be heard off-mic discussing how to proceed. The moderator offered to do whatever made Osaka “most comfortable,” and then suggested Osaka could answer the last question asked of her before taking a break and then switching to speak with Japanese media.
Prior to the question about Haiti, Osaka was asked by a reporter from The Cincinnati Enquirer about how she balances “not being crazy about dealing with us [media]” with needing a media platform for her “outside interests.”
After the four-time Grand Slam champion took a few long pauses, the news conference moderator tried to move on to the next question, but Osaka insisted on trying to better understand the question.
Reporter: You are 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. I guess my question is, how do you balance the two and also do you have anything you’d like to share about what you did say about Simone Biles?
Osaka: When you say I’m “not crazy about dealing with you guys,” what does that refer to?
Reporter: Well, you’ve stated too that you especially don’t like the press conference format and yet that seems to be obviously the most widely used means of communicating to the media and through the media to the public.
Osaka: 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].
Moderator: I think we can move on to the next question, Naomi, do you want to move on to the next question?
Osaka: Um, no, I’m actually very interested in that point of view, so if you could repeat that, that would be awesome.
Reporter: 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. … My question was, I guess, was, you also have outside interests beyond tennis that are served by having the platform that the media presents to you. How do you think you might be able to best balance the two?
Osaka: 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. So I would say, in that regards, I’m quite different to a lot of people and I can’t really help that there’s 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 a couple of 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.
Earlier in the news conference, Osaka answered questions around mental health and how to improve the athlete-reporter relationship at events.
Osaka’s agent, Stuart Duguid, later said in a statement to a freelance reporter for The New York Times that “the bully at the Cincinnati Enquirer is the epitome of why player / media relations are so fraught right now. 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.”
Osaka, who won the Australian Open in February, withdrew from the French Open before her second-round match and skipped Wimbledon entirely as she cited a need for a mental health break. She pulled out of the National Bank Open in Montreal, which wrapped up Sunday.
“In that moment, I wasn’t really proud, it was something I needed to do for myself,” Osaka said Monday about her withdrawal from Roland Garros. “I was a little bit embarrassed to go out [of my house] because I didn’t know if people were looking at me in a different way than they usually did before.
“The biggest eye-opener was going to the Olympics and having other athletes come up to me and say that they were really glad I did what I did. So, after all that, I’m proud of what I did and, do I think that was something that needed to be done? Yeah.”
Osaka said she also sent a message to gymnastics star Biles, who withdrew from the Olympic women’s team final citing her mental health.
“I sent her a message but I also want to give her her space because I know how overwhelming it can feel,” Osaka said.
Responding to another question about event news conferences, Osaka suggested that perhaps providing “a sick day” for athletes rather than being fined for missing a postmatch news conference could be an option.
“Most of the time … I am pretty open when it comes to press conferences and I feel like I’ve been that way my whole life,” Osaka said. “There are times where there’s people I don’t know that well and they ask really, really sensitive questions, and especially after a loss that kind of amplifies a bit. … I am not a professional in press conferences or anything, just to maybe make it a friendlier experience.”
Ranked second in the world, Osaka will be playing in her first tournament since a surprising third-round loss in Tokyo. The Japan native lit the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony.
Osaka, 23, was the runner-up at the Western & Southern Open last year after withdrawing from the final with a hamstring injury.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.