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36 all out cricket score or a Naomi Osaka tennis match, don’t you want to hear the players' thoughts?

The post-match press conference is a routine 10-minute affair. It goes beyond the media, as it also informs fans, coaches, sponsors and documentary makers.

June 02, 2021 / 01:02 PM IST
A February 2021 photo of Japan's Naomi Osaka (C) at a ceremony after winning against Jennifer Brady (L) of the US during their women's singles final match on day thirteen of the Australian Open. (Photo by David Gray / AFP)

A February 2021 photo of Japan's Naomi Osaka (C) at a ceremony after winning against Jennifer Brady (L) of the US during their women's singles final match on day thirteen of the Australian Open. (Photo by David Gray / AFP)

Pep Guardiola made mystifying changes in the Manchester City XI for the Champions League final on Saturday and lost. Did fans and a big part of the football world NOT want to know what his rationale was?

When India were bowled out for 36 by Australia in Adelaide some months ago, did people want to hear from the captain or not? Did they also not want to hear from young Rishabh Pant when he scored a heroic hundred in Brisbane as India won the series?

There are many aspects to Naomi Osaka’s decision to boycott mandatory post-match press conferences at the French Open, and her subsequent withdrawal from the tournament. One of them is whether the ritual is necessary in the era of social media, when the athlete can directly communicate with their fans.

The above examples show that it is absolutely necessary. One, people want to know. And people does not just mean fans and journalists, as the latter breed has copped a lot of venom in the episode. People also means the coaching fraternity, young students of sport, film-makers and sponsors.

Secondly, Osaka may post one statement on her social media. Is she going to take objective questions after every match? No. So it is simplistic to assume that the existence of social media cancels out the need for press conferences or interviews.

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Another aspect of the issue is how much of a demand, really, is a post-match press conference on an athlete? As someone who has covered several cricket and tennis tournaments, these are barely ten-minute sessions, and where the press is often harmless. The questions are usually about the match and the next round. While these exchanges may be tiring and cursory at times, they are not psychological torture as it is made out to be.

The athlete-press relationship is more than a sum of its parts. There are a lot of intangibles involved. And the press conference is where a big part of the relationship is formed. And when the athlete is in a good mood, both sides even manage a chuckle together and provide the sport its memorable moments. These are then chronicled in text or on video, and add to the history and appeal of the sport. Novak Djokovic can be temperamental, but he also distributes chocolates in the press box at the Australian Open. And over the years this has become one of the traditions of the tournament and added to Djokovic’s appeal.

There is another important sub-point within the larger point of press conferences addressing much more than just fans and media. They also help in the making of documentaries or writing of books, which go a long way in building the image of a sport or an athlete. Print media may be struggling. But web shows, websites, documentaries and great biographies are not. And they draw a lot of material from press conferences, directly or indirectly.

Would The Last Dance, the delightful Chicago Bulls documentary on Netflix, be the same without all the information and footage gained from reporters or press conferences? Would Asif Kapadia’s Maradona film be the same without some compelling images from press conferences? In fact, the film opens with Maradona being driven through the streets of Naples, and then shepherded to the conference amidst the cheers of the terraces, for his unveiling at the club.

Among the common complaints athletes make about journalists is that a story was written or shot “without my version of events”. Now here’s Osaka, who does not want to be asked for her version of events. Even the French Open organisers could not talk to her, according to their statement, when they reached out to her to work out a solution. They also wrote to Osaka checking on her mental health and offering support. Only when she did not respond did they threaten her with a possible expulsion from the tournament.

Osaka is just 23. And even though she has been a well-travelled elite player for a few years now, 23 is 23. Due to her youth and mental health concerns, her decision should be accepted. But in future, she may want to go about such situations in a more reasonable way.
Akshay Sawai
first published: Jun 1, 2021 05:39 pm

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