The commencement of French Open tennis tournament on the clay courts at Roland Garros is an event eagerly anticipated by tennis fans world over. However, this Grand Slam was in the news for all the wrong reasons this year as events outside the playing arena gained more prominence than the happenings on the courts. Naomi Osaka, currently among the top- ranked women players in the world and the reigning US and Australian Open champion, withdrew from the championship after being fined $15,000 for not attending a post match press conference. This penalty was imposed despite Osaka informing the organisers that she could not attend the meetings with press as she had been suffering from ‘bouts of depressions’ since 2018 and speaking before the media gave her ‘huge waves of anxiety’. Following this, she decided to pull out of the tournament to prevent further controversies on this matter.
This incident brings to the fore two issues. One pertains to the insensitivity of the administrators and officials towards the genuine difficulties faced by players in tackling the issues created on their mind and psyche due to performing under high-voltage, pressure-cooker like situations for long periods. The second is the larger issue about the change in attitude and approach of players towards media in the recent past, especially after the increase in use and popularity of the social media. Both these require a detailed discussion.
The problems of the mind faced by top sportspersons on account of subjecting themselves to high stress and pressure on a near continuous basis have not received the attention they deserve. Bjorn Borg, the legendary player who won five Wimbledon championships consecutively from 1976-80 was nicknamed as “Iceborg” for the remarkably cool temperament he used to display in critical situations in matches where all seemed lost, but he managed to comeback and win. One had never seen Borg raise even an eyebrow in public, much less let out a curse or express an emotion, whether in anger or happiness. He seemed to be too extraordinarily calm and composed for a human being and appeared more like a ‘sanyasi’, who had conquered his emotions. However, a biopic made based on his life titled “Borg vs McEnroe”, has painted a different picture of this person. Outside the tennis court, Borg was a different man, one who fired his longtime coach without any qualms, threw tantrums and shouted at his girlfriend. It was obvious that he managed his stress levels by releasing on other members of his entourage all those emotions and tensions that he had bottled up within himself while playing. It could have been these struggles between the public persona and inner self that prompted Borg to quit the game at the relatively young age of 25 and vanish into near anonymity.
In recent years, many sportspersons and prominent personalities in other walks of life have come out in the open about coping with mental depression during various phases of their careers. Top sportspersons attain the level of being icons; the fact that they maintain a high level of physical fitness makes it appear to the outside world that they are invincible. Hence it takes a great deal of courage for them to admit about facing problems of the mind and undergoing treatment for getting cured. In the world of women’s tennis, Serena Williams had opened up about falling victim to depression after suffering injuries at the peak of her career. There are also numerous instances of up and coming players taking recourse to drugs on account of not being able to handle the pressures of playing at the top level.
In these circumstances one would have expected better understanding from organisers of major championships and officials about the problems and difficulties faced by players like Osaka. It might be that they could be legally correct in insisting on post match interviews if such interactions with media were a part of the contract signed by each player taking part in the tournament. But once a player expressed genuine difficulties about doing so, they should have been more considerate and sought a solution which was acceptable to both sides. By deciding to impose a fine on Osaka, they exposed themselves as a bunch of boors with no commitment either to the sport or to the players, and hence eminently unworthy of the posts they occupy. They should have at least shown the common sense to remember the basic fact that championships are held for players to perform and display their skills before the public on the tennis court and not for conducting verbal volleys before media.
The second and larger issue concerns the relationship between sportspersons and journalists. During the period before live television coverage of games started, sportspersons needed reporters more than the other way around. Most of the top players took care not to antagonise representatives of the media and some even developed close friendships with leading members of the Fourth Estate. The reason was that the larger public who could not watch the action got to learn about the exploits of the players only through the words written by the reporters who covered these games. Some of these correspondents even possessed the power to make or unmake the career of young players and hence commanded a lot of and influence in the running of the particular sport.
This cosy relationship underwent a change once live television became the norm and followers of the sport could watch the action sitting in the comforts of their homes. This also made players instant celebrities, which added to their earning through sponsorships and advertisement of consumer products. When action could be directly viewed by the public, the power of written word diminished and even the role of commentators got pushed into the background. The only aspect that was not readily available to the fans was about the player himself - his personal life, what made him tick, how he coped with stress, what were his fads etc. So it became the task of the media to find out more about these facets, thus bringing more focus on the person than on the sport. The surge in number of television channels around this period resulted in an ever increasing number of reporters chasing players and athletes to dig out new and hitherto unknown facts about them.
This brought to the fore the first fault lines between players and reporters. While the players did not mind reports and stories about their performances and other news items favourable to them, most of them resented media probing into their privacy. Even worse was the fact that the target of these prying eyes did not stop with the players but extended to their families and even girlfriends. Most players tend to be obsessionally protective about their families who provide the support system that is essential for success of any sportsperson. Media craves for news and juicier they are the better. So many a time this hunt for saleable news resulted in upsetting and even hurting the players concerned.
But the advent of social media changed this equation completely. Now players can reach out to their fans and followers through a short message on Twitter or a post on Instagram. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, one of the most popular yet the most reclusive cricketer of this generation, chose to announce his retirement through a post on Instagram! There were no press conferences, no leaks to media nor recourse to old fashioned customs like choosing a last match and bowing out in a style that will be remembered for long. This direct access of players to the public completely bypassing the media has made things even more difficult for the latter. When they are not required either for reporting action on the field nor for informing the public about lesser known details of players, the basic question of relevance of existence starts ticking in.
The Osaka episode needs to be viewed through this prism as well. Players and media should lay down new norms that define their relationship in this age and time. If this does not leave scope for conventional press conferences, they should be done away with and new ways for player-press interaction devised and developed. Removing a player from a championship for expressing difficulty to meet the media is a crude and callous response, akin to throwing out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.
Let us hope that the bold step taken by Osaka to leave French Open rather than risk challenges to her mental health results bring in greater awareness among the administrators and officials about the importance of wellbeing of the psyche of top players. Similarly one hopes that this should help to redefine the tenuous relations between players and media and pave the way for the emergence of a new protocol acceptable to both parties.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)