When Naomi Osaka announced to her fans via Instagram that she would no longer be participating in press events at the French Open, she was met with swift condemnation from the French, U.S., and Australian Opens as well as the powers that be at Wimbledon. In a joint statement, Grand Slam organizers slapped Osaka with a $15,000 penalty and threatened her additional fines and expulsion if she continued to refuse post-match interviews. Gilles Moretton, president of the French Tennis Federation and one of the architects behind this message, defended it in a Wednesday interview with the New York Times: “I think we did very, very well,” he said. “The goal was not to penalize her. It was to say clearly: Here’s the rule.”
But when Moretton was asked in the same interview about the third-round withdrawal of tennis great Roger Federer—one of the tournament’s biggest selling points—his understanding and empathy suddenly deepened.
Moretton said he had “too much respect for Roger” to question his decision to withdraw from competition since Federer did so to maintain his knee health for Wimbledon after two surgeries, the most recent of which took place in early 2020.
“Everyone wants to see [Federer] play as long as possible,” Moretton told the Times. We know he will be 40 soon. It will be difficult. We can see it, and he knows it himself, and he needs to preserve himself.”
Moretton acknowledged that Osaka’s choice not to do interviews—and eventually not compete for the sake of her own mental health—raised “a real topic for discussion.” However, he seemed unwilling to actually engage in that discussion with Osaka, insisting that continuing to penalize her would have been the only option: “I think we would have kept giving her fines,” he said.
Moretton claimed that this policy was for the sake of making things equal for all of the players and the reporters who cover them. “It’s the rule,” he reiterated, referring to an arbitrary rule that he could have easily changed or ignored at any point that demands players attend to a full press schedule along with training and competing.
One would think that players’ well-being would be of the utmost importance to an organization like the French Tennis Federation, which exists solely because of the work of athletes. But well-being doesn’t stop at maintaining physical health. (Any athlete will tell you that mental fortitude is what keeps you going set after set when you’re body is ready to quit.) Yet when given an opportunity to help protect the mental health of Naomi Osaka, the number two ranked player in the sport, the tennis community vilified her instead, and esteemed athletic organizations fomented animosity between players, fans, and the media to do it.
But what Moretton is doing is more sinister than favoring one player’s health over another. Tennis—and specifically the French Open—stands on a racist history that banned Black players and regularly policed Serena Williams’ on-court appearance. And so Moretton’s unequal judgment also upholds an ugly history that saw decades of white players being coddled while Black players were scrutinized to an unbearable degree.
Then there’s the fact that many sports journalists seem to hate post-game press pools as much as the players themselves: “Most of us don’t love press conferences, we would prefer to talk to [an athlete] one on one,” Jemele Hill said on Dan Le Batard’s radio show. Press conferences are a matter of logistics, Hill went on to explain: During tennis tournaments, it’s simply easier for sponsors and organizational bodies to squeeze 20 journalists into a room and parade a player in front of them to ask questions in which the responses are controlled, largely by the sponsors and the organizational bodies.
So if these conferences are not good for players, not helpful for journalists, and only serve to get sponsors like Gatorade or Tissot more eyeballs then perhaps, as reporter Michale Smith said, “... This shit doesn’t need to be required anymore.” And maybe, just maybe, two successful athletes can be treated with the same empathy.