Tennis world needs to check itself after Naomi Osaka pulls out of French Open
The sport’s biggest star deserved more support from the powers that be
In 1989, I was a third grader at Washington International School at the Olive Street campus across town in Georgetown. To that point in life there were two things I knew about the world outside of my neighborhood in Washington: In the morning, my classroom spoke English. In the afternoons, we spoke French. It wasn’t much more complicated than that, for me. WIS was the only school I’d ever gone to, aside from preschool, and that’s how the language immersion program worked.
Our French teacher was a woman named Madame Costa. I don’t remember a ton about her other than that she was intensely French, from the way that she dressed to the way that she talked to the crepes she made in class if we were good on a Friday. Like most teachers of her ilk, she didn’t play a whole lotta games, so to speak, and expected a strict level of order in her operations.
One day, I broke the rules – consistently, as she viewed it I guess – and I paid the price. After laughing one too many times at another kid’s inability to read a certain word (hello, I was a child and the word “poubelle,” meaning trash can, was hilarious to me), she decided the only way I was going to learn to respect my peers was not by asking me to stop, but by embarrassing me in front of the class.
When it was my turn to read aloud from whatever book we were studying at the time, I messed up something and she herself burst out laughing, instructing the rest of the class to do so as well. Awkwardly, a few kids did, which wasn’t good enough for her. She encouraged them to continue to do so, because, see, I had done the same. My two best friends, both Black, one Haitian, refused. We all got extra homework that week. (Decades later, I was the best man in the latter’s wedding.)
That day was my first encounter with a French person’s arrogance, and certainly not my last. And considering how the officials at Roland Garros, home of the French Open, just treated the No. 2-ranked women’s player in the world like she was the help acting out in front of company, I presume it won’t be Naomi Osaka’s last either.
Mental Health Awareness Month is not some fly-by-night matter in the U.S. Started by the National Mental Health Association in 1949, each year the organization now known as Mental Health America has promoted different themes such as “Live Your Life Well” in 2009, “Mind Your Health” in 2014 and this year’s: “#Tools2Thrive.”
Among the tools listed on its website are Adapting After Trauma and Stress, Processing Big Changes, Getting Out of Thinking Traps, Radical Acceptance and Taking Time for Yourself. One doesn’t need to be a mental health expert or patient to understand the value of those topics and processes.
So, when Osaka told the French Tennis Federation that she wouldn’t be speaking to any press during the 2021 Grand Slam event at Roland Garros, citing concerns about her mental health, most decent people understood it as a reasonable concession for a player who has grown the sport immeasurably since she broke onto the scene a few years ago, winning the US Open in 2018 – in a match that proved extremely instructive as to what the powers that be think about themselves, their sport and most notably: Black women.
The uproar last week was swift. Osaka was called every name in the book, from petulant to princess, by non-fans of the sport, my fellow colleagues at this network and even thrown shade from tennis legend Billie Jean King, who insinuated in a public statement that Osaka should basically be thankful she’s gotten this much from the trashy world of country club sports.
“In our day, without the press, nobody would have known who we are or what we thought. There is no question they helped build and grow our sport to what it is today,” King wrote Monday. “I acknowledge things are very different now with social media and everyone having an immediate ability to speak their truth.”
It be your own people, sometimes.
And in the case of the buffoons at Roland Garros, they showed precisely how racist they can be back in 2018.
“I really believe that sometimes we have gone too far,” then-federation president Bernard Giudicelli said to Tennis Magazine in 2018 when Serena Williams wore her catsuit. The outfit, which was immensely fly, was also designed to help treat the blood clots Williams suffered from while giving birth to her child, Olympia. “The outfit of Serena this year, for example, will no longer be accepted. You have to respect the game and the place. Everyone wants to enjoy the showcase.”
Everyone, apparently, doesn’t include Black folks.
So, when this week, the federation fined Osaka $15,000 for skipping a news conference, Osaka was ready. She held to her word and said that she hoped the money from the fines would go toward mental health efforts. Instead of support, the powers that be further ground the ax, shifting the goalposts to say that if she continued to eschew media appearances, she risked disqualification from the tournament.
A classic colonizer move: Dissuade people of color from their own agency by setting up absurd obstacles to be overcome just to maintain their dignity, but when those are surpassed, suddenly switch gears to imply that the rule is really about the sanctity/growth of the sport overall. In short, a completely disingenuous about-face that reveals what this is really about: control.
It should be noted here that Osaka is the most popular player in the sport, right now, even more so arguably than my favorite athlete of all time: Serena Jameka Williams. And it’s not close. She earned $5.2 million in prize money and fifty million dollars in sponsorships off the court, proving the point that in many ways, yes, she is bigger than tennis. We aren’t talking about a Maria Sharapova situation here, Osaka actually wins the tournaments alongside being a Vogue cover girl, among many other exploits.
“As tennis players, we’re so hyperfocused on what happens on the court, and we think our life is sort of determined by whether we win a match or not,” she told the fashion magazine in late 2020. “That’s not true. I think that the pandemic gave me the chance to go into the real world and do things that I wouldn’t have done without it.”
She doesn’t have to play tennis to grow the game. Because she’s already done that. See: her bank account. Aka, the reason they can’t stand her. The logic doesn’t even add up. If the person everyone is there to see play tennis doesn’t want to do something not called “playing tennis,” which is what everyone is there to see anyways, the smart move is to support whatever allows her to play actual tennis.
When she withdrew from the tournament Monday, federation president Gilles Moretton fecklessly read a statement saying, “The outcome of Naomi withdrawing from Roland Garros is unfortunate. We wish her the best and the quickest possible recovery, and we look forward to having Naomi in our tournament next year.”
Recovery. As if the problem isn’t exactly the kind of press corps they encourage and accept, who pull ridiculous stunts like recklessly asking teenagers if the only reason they are compared to other players is based on the color of their skin, as if they aren’t the ones making such lazy comparisons in the narrative to begin with.
But we all know the jig. This was never about tennis.
Especially not for a Black woman who was born in Japan and whose paternal grandparents only spoke to her in Creole, the language of their home nation: Haiti.
In my opinion, France is easily the most arrogant nation in Europe. Most French people would tell you this, but perhaps in a way that implies that they should be, because they believe it. As opposed to the more smug level of condescension applied by their neighboring historical colonizers, the English, the nation that invented champagne is far more direct with theirs, and always has been.
In history, the concept of divine right (all things regal are deserved as they were bestowed by God) has rarely been more fully embraced by anyone than Louis XIV. A guy who referred to himself as the Sun King and reigned over France beginning at the grand age of 4 years old, ruling for seven-plus decades, the longest winning streak in tour history, if you will.
You might recall his work at a little place known as Versailles, one of, if not the most opulent palace on earth, which is about a 45-minute train ride from Paris. If you’ve never been, it’s every bit as outrageous and “beautiful” as you may think and everything there costs an arm and a leg. Not dissimilar to the price that many peasants in that nation paid to fund said paradise, because the bourgeoisie class in France wouldn’t pay for it, but wanted to be a part of the royal court’s grandeur. If you don’t know how that movie ends, let’s just say: not well.
But Louis XIV is the same human who decided that Haiti, part of the group of islands originally “discovered” by greedy genocidal maniac Christopher Columbus, needed to be his. They fought for years for the right to control slaves and resources on the island and Spain eventually ceded one-third of it to France, creating Haiti. While Spain kept the side that is now the Dominican Republic.
Haitians, who still live largely in abject poverty due to the actions of this nation as well, don’t speak French out of the goodness of their hearts. The African slaves who were brought to the island were raped and abused, but their people found a way to make a home and create a beautiful culture through their own courage.
Where did I learn all this? In a classroom in Cleveland Park, at that same school where years earlier a French woman told young students to laugh at a Black kid en masse for goofing off in class. Only this time, my teacher was the excellent Madame Band, who once in a legit fantastic display of the French “esprit de corps,” as it’s known, walked into our fifth grade social studies class (taught en francais) and said to us in no uncertain terms at a loud volume, “Je m’en fou means ‘I don’t give a f—.’ Not, ‘I don’t care.’ ” We were kids, and even though we took the language every day, some things got lost in translation. She was awesome. The laughing flap was a random bad case in the place that made me. It’s a legit godsend to be bilingual (language aside) as an adult.
It was those experiences that led me later in life to realize quite a few things about how that country views itself, for better or worse. It starts with how the language is taught as much as anything. At the elementary and intermediate level, students spend a lot of time doing something known as a dictée. Basically, you study a text for an ungodly long amount of time, then, it is removed, and one day you walk into class blind, and you have to rewrite everything in the text based on the dictated words of a teacher, and are marked off for everything from spelling to punctuation to paragraph breaks that are not otherwise indicated vocally. To this day, I love speaking the French language, love reading it and despise writing it.
Was it effective? I guess. But the truth is, the fun part of the French language is that it’s actually pretty easy to learn. Not to get too far into linguistics, but if you listened to a French person tell you, you’d think it’s the hardest thing on earth. Trust me, it’s not. The verb conjugation is relatively simple compared with many Romance languages, and the words and phrases that are commonly used have far fewer bizarre technicalities and exceptions than, say, English. But, because we are conditioned to believing that a French accent is somehow sophisticated, as opposed to just another language, they believe it too.
My mother’s sister lived in Paris for years, and on the occasions I’ve visited her, and later other friends there, the reaction I’d get then and still get to this day as an American speaking is, “How long did you live in France?” as if that’s the only possible way to learn the oh so elusive language that France spent decades brutalizing the rest of the world to force to learn. Or “you must be Haitian or West African.” Nope, I just learned it in school like any other subject, and it happened to be a great one where they taught it to young Black kids from Black neighborhoods just like me. It’s a definite bonus in life now. In France, if I don’t speak English, the customary pride in rudeness (in which people will actually correct a non-native speaker’s skills as they speak) is gone, and on West African soil, people just assume I’m French.
Which is all fine. France is a lovely place, as are many of its territories, as awkward as that reality currently is. Some of my best friends are French. But, since I was 16, my response to the always condescending remark of, “Your French is amazing, wow!” is: “Your English is terrible. Not surprised. It’s a tough language.”
Tennis might not have people ready to bust out of prison and start activating the guillotine in public squares, but the farce that is the media circus for competitive balance is clearly gone at this point. For the nation that claims “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” as its national mantra, but as recently as 2013 had to put the phrase “nos differences nous unissent” on its national soccer team jerseys because fans were bitching that the team wasn’t white enough, the rose is well off the bloom for their premier sporting event. Imagine that, colonizing a large part of the globe, then complaining when the makeup of your nation isn’t made up of only the white folks in power.
This isn’t the ’40s, when Black literary giant James Baldwin was roaming the streets of Paris, released from the shackles of American Jim Crow laws, or even the ’60s, when King was playing and stateside there were segregated fountains all over the South. It’s 2021. And the entire framework of how tennis operates is as worthy of examination as any other sport, almost all of which have had some sort of reckoning.
Osaka wore seven masks during last year’s US Open, one each to commemorate a victim of police violence in this country. It was not exactly a revolutionary move, but an absolutely bold and courageous one in the face of a sport that refuses to see Black folks as much more than random anomalies dropping in on their sport from time to time.
But if a Black woman at the top of her sport can’t get the support from the powers that be when she has been nothing but gracious, honorable and excellent on the court? The deeper problem must be addressed, if for no other reason than the fans. In this particular case, the asinine actions of a particular Grand Slam have robbed the tournament of one of its biggest stars.
If you think that maintaining the sanctity of news conferences is a more important task than watching the actual best tennis players on earth play, then you might not be the tennis fan you think you are. If you like the antics of Nick Kyrgios (my favorite player on the men’s tour) and have touted the “passion” of a guy such as John McEnroe over the years, but think that one big star willing to donate her actual money to a good cause to avoid preening self-important scribes, then you might want to reevaluate why you’re tuning in to begin with.
On a journalistic level, all the arguments against what she’s doing under the guise of “the art of storytelling” are nonsense. No athlete owes anyone anything. If we want them to play for the love, let them do it. As soon as it becomes about money, they’re criticized. But when they only want to play and not talk, that’s a problem too? As someone who does this for a living, there’s a very big difference between an athlete saying “you people don’t make me feel good about speaking to you” and “OMG athletes will never talk to the press again.” And in a non-team sport? There should absolutely be a different standard.
NFL legend Marshawn Lynch famously showed up to a postgame news conference once just to not get fined, but he also once told a group of rookies to “take care of your mentals.” It’s priority one for competitive excellence.
Perhaps the slope is slippery, but that’s only for those of us in this business who’ve been lazy and reductive all along. The smartest, easiest, safest and most effective way to make sure that athletes feel empowered enough to share themselves with us is when the actual people in the room look like them, understand them and respect them for what they provide, which is their life’s work to entertain people.
For a 23-year-old woman whose message her entire career has been about positivity, Black love and being yourself, she didn’t deserve any of this. The other three Grand Slams can claim that they are checking in, but the people they need to check are themselves. But if the simple concept of trusting us to protect our own peace is an inherently fundamental nonstarter, these kinds of ugly incidents will continue to mar tournaments and harm lives and pockets.
Monday afternoon, in a perfect encapsulation of the entire problem, the official Roland Garros account tweeted a picture of four players during their media availability, with the caption “they understood the assignment.” A direct lift from the parlance of Black Twitter, used against our own people for public humiliation. For this journalist, it was a flashback.
If the tennis world is willing to turn away the efforts and dollars in the fight for legitimizing mental health, then it doesn’t deserve the fruits of anyone’s labor, never mind the humans fighting against every possible hurdle to dominate the sport they’ve tried to keep people out of for so long. Believe Black women, respect people’s agency and let the players play.
Voilà, mes amis.