MELBOURNE / PARIS – The waves of anxiety Naomi Osaka described before heading to a post-match press conference might be familiar to French Open finalist Sofia Kenin, whose heartbreaking exit from the Australian Open was exposed in front of the cameras in February.
American Kenin, a year younger than Osaka, apparently had the world at her feet when she arrived in Melbourne to defend her title just months after reaching her second Grand Slam final at Roland Garros.
However, behind the scenes, the 2020 WTA Player of the Year was on shaky ground.
Weeks after parting ways with her management, Kenin was locked in a hotel room for two weeks while the players adhered to Australia’s strict COVID-19 quarantine protocols ahead of the Grand Slam.
Once back on the court, the cracks appeared when he cried at the Yarra Classic tournament following a 6-2 6-2 loss to Garbine Muguruza, a rematch of his Australian Open final the previous year.
He began his Australian Open defense with a painstaking first-round win over local wild card Maddison Inglis, crying before, during and after the match.
She eventually broke down in the next match against Kaia Kanepi because “her nerves got the better of her.”
If anyone deserved a permit from the mandatory post-game press conference, the distraught Kenin would surely have had a case.
However, about an hour after the loss, he stoically walked into Melbourne Park’s windowless media conference room to answer questions from on-site reporters and other people connected by video conference around the world.
“I feel like everyone was always asking me, ‘Do you want to? Do you see yourself arriving (in Melbourne) and winning again? ‘”, He said.
“Obviously I said yes. With the way I’m playing, no. “
Then he burst into tears.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
Osaka’s press boycott, followed by its withdrawal from the French Open on Monday, has put the media under the microscope and sparked criticism of the Grand Slams threatening fines of up to $ 20,000 if players skip conference calls. mandatory press.
Players can choose to come out without fear of penalties if they are injured or “physically unable to appear,” but there is no provision for mental strain, a gray area that becomes more murky with the emotional cost of a disappointing loss.
Players rallied around Osaka with messages of support after she revealed her mental health battles on Monday, but none went so far as to publicly endorse her boycott of the press or berate Grand Slams for being strict with the rules. .
“It is definitely not easy. I mean, this is what you signed up for. This is sport. There are expectations from the outside, the sponsors and everyone, ”Kenin said Monday.
“You just have to handle it somehow. You have to have a good team around you to support you. You know they are with you. Everything you tell them is for them, and that’s it. They will always support you and stand behind you. “
Some players, perhaps surprisingly given the agony of facing reporters after a poor performance, have defended the process as “part of the job” and credited the media for raising the profile of the game.
“The Grand Slams are protecting themselves and their own business. Of course they are going to follow the rules and make sure you follow them, ”said world number one Novak Djokovic.
Though more for the benefit of the tennis-watching public than the main actors on the court, some players admit to enjoying verbal rallies with the media.
Roger Federer has said that his coaches watch his press conferences to find out how he thinks.
Others, like Australian puppet Nick Kyrgios, can’t stand it and dismiss questions with contempt.
Venus Williams, a veteran of more than two decades in the post-game media, is galvanized by her record of 49 titles, including seven individual Grand Slam crowns.
“For me personally, the way I handled it was that I know that all the people who ask me a question can’t play as well as I do and they never will,” the 40-year-old said after her first-round outing. from Roland Garros. .
“So no matter what you say or write, you will never light a candle for me.”
After winning her second-round match against Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania on Wednesday, Venus’s sister and former world number one, Serena Williams, told reporters that she believed that “press conferences definitely play their part.”
“They are very difficult to do sometimes. I had a run-in with journalists, ”said Williams, who was among those who offered Osaka their full support this week.
“Venus said it best,” he added with a smile.
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