PARIS — Naomi Osaka’s return to the French Open was triumphant as she won her first-round match over Patricia Maria Tig on Sunday in straight sets. But Osaka did not emerge unscathed from the tournament’s opening day.
She was fined $15,000 by Rémy Azémar, the French Open tournament referee, for declining to appear at a mandatory postmatch news conference and warned that she risked stronger penalties, including default from the tournament, if she continued not to fulfill her media obligations.
That surprisingly stern warning was delivered in a statement signed by the leaders of the four Grand Slam tournaments: Gilles Moretton, the new president of the French Tennis Federation; Mike McNulty, the new head of the United States Tennis Association; Jayne Hrdlicka, the head of Tennis Australia; and Ian Hewitt, chairman of the All England Club, which runs Wimbledon.
The Grand Slam events’ leaders also emphasized that repeat violations by Osaka could lead to “more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.”
Osaka, a four-time major singles champion who is one of the sport’s biggest stars, is now faced with a choice. Before the French Open began, she announced that she would not do “any press” during the tournament, citing the need to preserve her “mental health” by avoiding repetitive and potentially negative questions from journalists.
But if the intent was to limit distractions and find inner calm, she now faces a potentially bigger concern in Paris if she continues to abstain from news conferences.
“It’s developed into a power struggle,” said Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion who is covering the French Open as an analyst for Eurosport. “Press conferences are crucial to Grand Slams to get the players’ perspective of their match, and it’s a collective responsibility for players to continue to grow the sport. I think we’ve lost sight of the early days, the ’70s, when there was no women’s tour, and that generation talked endlessly to the press to promote the sport and themselves. The players today are making a tremendous amount of money, and there are trade-offs.”
The Grand Slam leaders expressed frustration with Osaka’s lack of engagement with tennis officials, explaining in their statement that the French Open management team had “tried unsuccessfully to speak with her to check on her well-being, understand the specifics of her issue and what might be done to address it on site.”
The Grand Slam leaders said they had written jointly to Osaka to remind her of her obligations and of the consequences she faced for not complying with the rules. The leaders also emphasized the importance of equal treatment.
“We want to underline that rules are in place to ensure all players are treated exactly the same, no matter their stature, beliefs or achievement,” the statement said. “As a sport there is nothing more important than ensuring no player has an unfair advantage over another, which unfortunately is the case in this situation if one player refuses to dedicate time to participate in media commitments while the others all honour their commitments.”
Leading players such as Andre Agassi, Novak Djokovic and Venus and Serena Williams have skipped news conferences after defeats and been fined. But this is the first instance of a top player making it clear in advance that she did not intend to speak with the news media during a Grand Slam tournament.
Osaka, who is based in the United States and represents Japan, is the world’s highest-paid female athlete, with the bulk of her earnings coming from sponsorships. She has raised her profile not simply by winning major titles but by advocating social justice; she wore masks that honored Black victims of violence, including police violence, after matches at last year’s United States Open.
“Naomi certainly makes us think and examine the status quo,” Evert said on Sunday. “I respect Naomi and what she’s done for social issues and for the game but everyone needs to communicate and come up with a solution.”
Tennis leaders followed Osaka’s lead last August when she withdrew from the semifinals of the Western & Southern Open to protest racial injustice, tournament organizers called off all play that day in a show of solidarity. She played her semifinal, but there is clearly less consensus this time, suggesting that Osaka may have misread the room. The Grand Slam tournaments even brandished the possibility of a “major offense” investigation if she continued to break the rules, which could lead to further fines or suspension from future Grand Slam tournaments. The grounds for such sanctions would be the rule that defines a major offense as “a series of two or more” violations of the code of conduct within a 12-month period, which “when viewed together establish a pattern of conduct that is collectively egregious and is detrimental or injurious to the Grand Slam tournaments.”
Repeatedly skipping news conferences could be considered a pattern of conduct. Evert said tennis leaders and Osaka should meet and work through the issues before “this blows up anymore.”
Osaka has had, in general, a positive relationship with the news media. But in her announcement on social media ahead of the French Open, she said, “I have often felt that people have no regard for athletes mental health, and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.” She focused in particular on players being required to speak after defeats.
Osaka, whose decision caught some members of her own support team by surprise, did not say whether she was experiencing a specific mental-health issue, but she made it clear in her social media posts that she felt strongly about taking a stand. “If the organizations think that they can just keep saying, ‘do press or you’re gonna be fined’ and continue to ignore the mental health of the athletes that are the centerpiece of their cooperation then I just gotta laugh.”
The Grand Slam leadership said on Sunday that players’ mental health was “of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams.”
“We individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to player well-being,” the statement said. “In order to continue to improve, however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences.
No leading player has yet expressed publicly a desire to follow Osaka’s lead by skipping news conferences. The main draws of the previous generation — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams — have regularly answered questions after each match despite becoming global stars.
There is concern among tennis leaders that Osaka could set a precedent at a time when social media has given stars a broad platform to reach the public directly. But the Grand Slam leaders emphasized that the news media still played an important role.
“A core element of the Grand Slam regulations is the responsibility of the players to engage with the media, whatever the result of their match, a responsibility which players take for the benefit of the sport, the fans and for themselves,” their statement said. “These interactions allow both the players and the media to share their perspective and for the players to tell their story. The facilitation of media to a broad array of channels, both traditional and digital, is a major contributor to the development and growth of our sport and the fan base of individual players.”
Osaka was not silent after her 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over Tig on the main Philippe Chatrier Court on Sunday. She answered three questions from the on-court interviewer, Fabrice Santoro, after the match and a few more queries on her way off the court from Wowow, the Japanese broadcaster with whom she is under contract.
But she declined all other television requests and skipped the news conference. After earning more than $55 million in the last year, she can afford the $15,000 fine and other fines that might come her way. The bigger question is whether she wants to risk jeopardizing her participation in the French Open. She has struggled on clay and never advanced past the third round in Paris, but the tournament remains one of the pillars of the sport.
The next chance to escalate or defuse the tension comes in the second round on Wednesday against Ana Bogdan of Romania.