She wrote that she suffered from anxiety issues before attending the post-match press meets, where negative queries related to her on-court performance, deeply affected her mental health.
The Grand Slams tend to penalise players with hefty fines if they skip mandatory press meets. Having skipped the news conference after her first-round win two weeks ago, Osaka earned the ire of the French Open’s referee who fined her $15,000, while the managements of the four Grand Slam tournaments warned her that she could be expelled from the Opens and face greater penalties if she abandoned her media responsibilities. The WTA has said that it has welcomed a dialogue with Osaka on mental health, even as it stood by its position on players’ media obligations.
Osaka’s exit has shone a spotlight on a redundant ritual practised in professional sporting organisations – the mandatory post-match press conferences. These meets are organised within minutes of the completion of a match, a match into which the competing players have poured their heart and soul, and which is a highly physical exercise that entails exhaustion levels, the likes of which ordinary individuals are never exposed to. It is amidst this cooling-off period, that champions are herded into jam-packed venues, where they are expected to retain their composure, on the lines of a pre-match interview, sans the sweat and the fatigue, and bombarded with questions.
Which brings us to the aspect of the line of questioning followed whenever matches are completed. If one had to parse through a list of spectator-heavy events, which includes sports, theatre, performance art and rock concerts, it might be only sporting events, where the media attempts to dissect the aftermath of a victory or a loss – straight from the horse’s mouth. One could justify this by saying the outcomes of sporting events, which are always unpredictable, require such deliberations. But let us get this straight – as far as the heavy lifters are concerned, in any of the aforementioned spheres, their work does the talking for them. When you witness a heart-breaking goal missed by Messi, or a match-winning six by Kohli, it seems banal to ask them how they felt at the exact moment before scoring or losing. As spectators, we have lost count of the number of times players staggered onto such meets, after debilitating defeats, but compelled to grin and bear it through an interminable volley of queries.
Stakeholders have also drawn attention to gender bias when it comes to questions lobbed at male and female athletes. Many media personnel in post-match meets lay the groundwork with questions on a female player’s technique and focus, before slyly digressing into their prospects of modelling or their thoughts on being a pin-up icon. To give credit where it is due, such press meets have been instrumental in building the brand value of not just the players, but the sports and the sporting bodies a few decades ago. But since the advent of the internet, where players communicate with fans directly, the idea of gleaning some special bit of information during a news meet seems absurd. Venus Williams, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champ summed up her thoughts on the media glare, “Every single person asking me a question can’t play as well as I can and never will, so no matter what you say or write, you’ll never light a candle to me.”
For professional sporting bodies, it is a wake-up call and an opportunity to draw a balance between letting their champs be the best sportspersons they can be, and fulfilling their duties towards the media, in a non-intrusive, player-friendly, and equitable manner.