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nytimes – At Roland Garros, Naomi Osaka seeks comfort on clay and maintenance-free

PARIS – While other major players juggled training and media commitments ahead of Roland Garros, Naomi Osaka focused solely on training this week.

She was on the court at Roland Garros early Friday, striking with former No.1 Angelique Kerber on red clay, where Osaka didn’t feel quite comfortable. During breaks, she would sit on a chair and look straight ahead as her trainer, Wim Fissette, crouched down beside her to chat.

Second seed Osaka is tennis’ biggest new star and now the highest paid female athlete in the world, ahead of Serena Williams. Osaka has won four Grand Slam singles titles, two more than any other woman since 2018. But Roland Garros, the only Grand Slam tournament played on clay, will be a big challenge. She hasn’t made it past the third round in four previous appearances, so she plans to approach the event differently: Osaka recently announced that, to protect her sanity, she will not be “doing any press” during the tournament. , which begins on Sunday.

It is still not clear what will result in his abstention in the media. Osaka, which represents Japan and lives in the United States, has a contract with Japanese broadcaster Wowow. Will she choose to speak with this network and other broadcasters? Will she be giving post-match interviews on the pitch? Or will she simply choose to skip the traditional post-game press conference designed to serve a wide variety of outlets?

Responses were not immediately received and Stuart Duguid, his agent, declined to comment when asked for clarification. What is clear is that Osaka chose not to participate in the official media day on Friday, which made her an exception. Participants included No. 1 female Ashleigh Barty; reigning women’s champion Iga Swiatek; and the 13-time male champion, Rafael Nadal. Already a stationary object at Roland Garros, Nadal now has a permanent presence after the unveiling this week of a steel statue of him tearing his trademark forehand.

Nadal and his teammates touched on many topics on Friday, and most were asked about Osaka’s decision. None criticized his choice, but all said they would take a different approach.

“As athletes we have to be prepared to accept questions and try to produce an answer, right?” Nadal said. “I understand her, but on the other hand, for me, without the press, without the people who travel normally, who write the news and the achievements that we have in the world, we probably won’t be the athletes that we are. today We’re not going to get the recognition that we have in the world, and we’re not going to be that popular, are we?

Nadal, who turns 35 on Thursday, is a creature of habit who started giving interviews as a preteen prodigy. The landscape has changed dramatically since winning his first title at Roland Garros in 2005. Athletes are now speaking out via social media, but the surprise announcement from 23-year-old Osaka isn’t just about a rift between generations.

Barty, from Australia, is 25 and Swiatek, from Poland, 19. Both are former Roland Garros champions and both are big stars in their home country.

“In my opinion, the press is kind of part of the job,” Barty said. “We know what we are all about as professional tennis players. I can’t really comment on how Naomi feels or her decisions.

Tired of the expectations and intensity of professional tennis, Barty took an almost two-year hiatus from her career before returning in 2016.

“Sometimes press conferences are tough, sure, but that’s also not something that bothers me,” she said. “I’ve never had a problem answering questions or being completely honest with you guys.”

In a statement released on Friday, the WTA stressed how seriously it takes the issue of mental health, but also stressed that media obligations are part of the job.

“The WTA welcomes a dialogue with Naomi (and all players) to discuss possible approaches that can help support an athlete in managing mental health issues, while also allowing us to meet our challenges. responsibilities to fans and the public, ”said the WTA. said the statement. “Professional athletes have a responsibility to their sport and their fans to speak to the media surrounding their competition, allowing them to share their perspective and tell their story. “

Swiatek, like young Canadian Bianca Andreescu, has prioritized the mental side of her game, using sports psychology from a young age and hiring a performance psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, to her team.

Swiatek said on Friday that she didn’t think attending press conferences was difficult or affected her mental health.

“I think the media is also very important because it gives us, you give us, a platform to talk about our lives and our perspective,” she said. “It’s also important because not everyone is a professional athlete and not everyone knows what we are dealing with on the court. It’s good to talk about it. We have two ways of doing this: media and social media. It’s good to use these two platforms and educate people.

What social media lacks, unless an athlete chooses to regularly answer subscriber questions, is dialogue.

Tennis press conferences aren’t what they used to be. They are generally shorter and much lighter on tactics, technique and the game that just ended. But they remain an opportunity for journalists to ask questions on any subject. They also allow those who regularly report on tennis to develop a relationship with the athletes and gain a better understanding of their personalities, psyches and, as Swiatek cleverly mentioned, their motivations and intentions.

Billie Jean King, who won 12 Grand Slam singles titles, said she was torn by Osaka’s decision.

“While it is important that everyone has the right to speak their truth, I have always believed that as professional athletes we have a responsibility to make ourselves available to the media,” King wrote in an e -mail. “These days, without the press, no one would have known who we are or what we think. There is no doubt that they have helped build and evolve our sport until it is today. I recognize that things are very different now with social media and everyone has the immediate ability to speak their truth. The media still play an important role in telling our story. There is no doubt that the media must respect certain limits. But at the end of the day, it’s important that we respect each other and are in the same boat. “

It is true that some of the world’s most prominent athletes do not systematically give post-match interviews. Football players from the best European leagues generally grant limited access. But the best tennis players aren’t the only ones talking after every game. Star golfers are usually interviewed after each round. Top track and field athletes and downhill skiers do interviews after every race. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, now retired, would win in less than 10 seconds and then spend half an hour or more leading a group of TV, radio and print journalists.

Osaka, with its long list of sponsors, has many new business partners who have an interest in maintaining a high profile. But she already gives very few one-on-one interviews and has achieved a level of stardom that she can probably maintain through social media, her sponsors and coverage of her matches.

Osaka is liable to a fine of up to $ 20,000 for every press conference she skips at Roland Garros. She explained in her ad that she had seen numerous cases of players breaking down after a loss in the interview room. She said players are often asked questions that “sow doubt in our minds, and I’m just not going to submit to people who doubt me.”

The doubts are however legitimate when it comes to its results on clay.

Osaka, who will play her first round match on Sunday against Patricia Maria Tig, is an excellent hard player but not yet a proven threat on clay or turf. She won two US Open and two Australian Open, all on padded hard acrylic courts. On clay, she has a career singles record of just 19-16 and has yet to reach the tour final. After winning the US Open in 2020, Osaka skipped the French Open, which was postponed to September and October due to the pandemic. This year, in her only clay court tournaments, she lost in the second round and then in the first.

“His challenges are the lack of self-confidence with the glide and the movement, and his shots don’t have as much weight on clay as they do on hard court,” said Pam Shriver, ESPN analyst who was a finalist for the ‘US Open in 1978. “His service is not a weapon either.

Osaka, who tends to aggressively tear their returns, are prone to making more mistakes on clay than on hard, where rebounds are real and shots are easier to time correctly. Players like Swiatek and Barty get more net clearance on their groundstrokes than Osaka, and Barty can change pace and trajectory more effectively with his perfectly sliced ​​backhand.

But powerful players with relatively flat groundstrokes and sliding issues solved the clay-court conundrum, especially Maria Sharapova, who once ridiculed herself as an “ice cow” on the surface but ultimately won two French Open.

“It takes time to develop, and it takes many hours on the training courts for you to feel your weight is under you on clay,” said José Higueras, the veteran coach who guided Michael Chang and Jim Courier to the Roland-Garros titles. “If you hit the exact same ball on hard court which is a decent enough shot, on clay it might not be that decent because the other player has a little more time to adjust. “

On Sunday, Osaka will try again to adjust its game in Paris. Win or lose, she plans to skip the press conference, and while her decision has met with resistance, it will also cause reflection.

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