This is a post about the contrast in the way two superstar tennis players were treated by the sport and the media after they each decided to withdraw from this year’s French Open.
First some background: The French Open is one of the sport’s four major annual events. It draws a huge amount of international media attention; many of the journalists who cover it do not cover tennis regularly, and are prone to ask the players idiotic questions at post-match press conferences (This is a significant factor in what transpired).
Last week, Naomi Osaka — the world’s second-ranked women’s tennis player who at the age of 23 has already won four major tournaments — withdrew from the French Open after winning her first round match, after a conflict with the tournament’s organizers about whether she had to participate in press conferences during the tournament:
Naomi Osaka said she was withdrawing from the French Open on Monday, one day after tennis officials threatened to suspend her and fined her $15,000 over her decision not to do media interviews during the tournament to prioritize her mental health.
In a statement on Monday, Osaka also said that she “suffered long bouts of depression” since being catapulted into the national spotlight after a controversial victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open of 2018.
“The best thing for the tournament, the other players and my well-being is that I withdraw so that everyone can get back to focusing on the tennis going on in Paris,” she said in a statement. “I never wanted to be a distraction and accept that my timing was not ideal and my message could have been clearer.”
“I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,” she added. “The truth is that I have suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”
“Anyone that knows me I’m introverted,” she said, “and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”
Here is Osaka’s full statement about the matter.
Her decision proved quite controversial, with some people, especially other elite athletes, expressing support, while on the Twitter hellsite many a totally not misogynist dude bro went on and on about this spoiled poor little rich girl who was pretending to be depressed just because she didn’t want to do some press conferences:
Meanwhile, Roger Federer, the Swiss superstar, withdrew from the tournament two days ago. Note how this decision was framed by the worshipful media complex, who have always treated Federer as not merely a transcendently great player, but as the Ultimate Embodiment of Classy Professionalism:
Roger Federer always viewed this French Open as a step in his comeback from a pair of knee operations, rather than somewhere he seriously could pursue a title. So after a grueling third-round victory, and with Wimbledon just weeks away, Federer decided some rest was in order.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion withdrew from Roland Garros on Sunday, a day after he eked our a four-set win that lasted until nearly 1 a.m. — and a day before he was supposed to face No. 9 seed Matteo Berrettini with a quarterfinal berth at stake.
“After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery,” Federer said in a statement released by the French tennis federation. “I am thrilled to have gotten 3 matches under my belt. There is no greater feeling than being back on court.”
In the same vein, the same French Open authorities who fined Osaka for not participating in a post-match conference, and threatened to toss her from the tournament if she persisted, fell all over themselves thanking Federer for agreeing to take part at all in their little annual Parisian get-together:
“The Roland Garros tournament is sorry about the withdrawal of Roger Federer, who put up an incredible fight last night,” said Guy Forget, the tournament director.
“We were all delighted to see Roger back in Paris, where he played three high-level matches. We wish him all the best for the rest of the season.”
The irony here is that Federer’s decision did actually represent an egregious breach of the sport’s norms. In effect, Federer took a high seed and precious ATP tournament points away from other players, by entering a tournament he obviously had no intention of contesting to the maximum of his ability. Withdrawing in the middle of a tournament because you’re actually injured is one thing; withdrawing from a tournament, especially a major, because you just wanted to play a few tuneup matches is quite another. To their credit, a few prominent tennis commentators criticized Federer for doing so:
“I understand it, but I don’t like it. It’s just not a great look to pull out of a tournament in the middle,” Patrick McEnroe told the New York Times.
“It’s one thing if you sprain an ankle badly and finish a match on adrenaline. Those things happen. But it’s another thing when you kind of go into a tournament knowing that you probably aren’t going to be able to really finish the tournament.”
John McEnroe was also gobsmacked, telling NBC: “Perhaps Roger might have done the magnanimous thing and defaulted match point up (against Koepfer) … but that’s easy for me to say from Malibu.”
While Former Australian Open tournament director Paul McNamee criticised Federer on Twitter, writing: “You’re not at a candy store, able to pick and choose which matches you play, as your actions affect others, and the tournament.”
Still, Federer — who really had abused some basic norms of the sport by withdrawing mid-tournament for purely selfish reasons — didn’t get anything like the criticism that befell Osaka, who was in fact in a far more difficult situation. (Unlike Federer, Osaka actually had a chance to win the tournament, and her decision to withdraw must have been a very painful one, emotionally speaking. Osaka is a gigantic sports star in her native Japan, comparable in that context to someone like Tom Brady or LeBron James in America).
The difference in reactions these two players elicited is revealing on all sorts of levels. Now naturally many an Objective Observer, aka a white guy, will complain that this sort of post is just another attempt to argue how race — Osaka’s father is Haitian and her mother is Japanese — and especially gender profoundly affect our perceptions, when they certainly don’t affect his. He is, after all, objective, rational, and scientific. Not like some hysterical girl who just wants even more attention than she’s already getting.