The French Open still demands umpires step off the chair to check a mark. Wimbledon insists players only wear white clothes. Are we really surprised that press conferences at majors are sacrosanct?
Not to heap on the four majors, or the International Tennis Federation that controls them, but the Naomi Osaka affair is really a reflection of how out of touch sports administrators are with the athletes, playing the sport, they administer.
In one of the few instances of Novak Djokovic making a good point for a while – the men’s No 1 player outlined how the 23-year-old Osaka had grown up in the digital age.
“It used to be the (traditional media) was the only way we can reach out to our fans, right. In the last five years or maybe 10 years, it’s not the case anymore,” said Djokovic. “We have our own platforms, our own social media accounts through which we are able to communicate directly with fans.
“Naomi, she’s very young and she grew up obviously with social media and ability to speak out through her channels.”
Funny thing is, all four of tennis’s majors have very good social media platforms. They know how that particular part of the game works. But what they wanted to show, in the wake of Osaka’s decision not to conduct press conferences in Paris, was control. In a weird way it harkened back to the 1960s. Back then, all four tournaments were strictly amateur, and professional players were forbidden from playing in them.
It took the likes of Rod Laver to plug away for five years on a kind of rogue professional circuit before those tournaments woke up and ‘allowed’ the pros to play in them.
In the current age, there is no chance those events would ban one of its biggest players for five years as was the case in the 60s. But that old measure of control remains, not just in tennis, but other sports too.
Administrators remain out of touch with the modern age. The language used in the initial statement following Osaka’s withdrawal from Roland Garros, illustrated that clearly. The French Tennis Federation president, Gilles Moretton – a 63 year old man – wished Osaka “the quickest possible recovery”, as if depression was some sort of calf strain.
Fortunately there was a revision later.
Osaka has been both open and closed off in her statement announcing her withdrawal from the French Open this week. In that regard it is she who now has control for her message. She doesn’t need the ‘traditional media’ nor the majors to explain herself.
That is an assertion of power that modern athletes have. How she utilises that will have far reaching implications for administrators, sponsors and media.
Administrators certainly need to change course in how they manage their respective sports. One would have thought lessons would have been learned from the 60s.
Osaka will take the time she needs to try and manage her mental health. She needs to look after her well-being first. The majors, and sports administrators generally, need to get with the times.