Tennis has been rattled by the Naomi Osaka earthquake, but it began as a tremor on May 26.
That’s when Osaka told Twitter followers and Roland-Garros officials she would not do post-match press conferences at the French Open. She considers the briefings detrimental to her mental health.
The world No. 2 from Japan then won her first-round match 6-4, 7-6 over Patricia Maria Tig of Romania. She stayed true to her word. The tournament referee issued a $15,000 fine Sunday after her press conference no-show.
Osaka anticipated this in her Twitter statement days earlier, saying:
“I hope the considerable amount that I get fined for this will go towards a mental health charity.”
She perhaps didn’t expect another part of Sunday’s response from the Grand Slams. They warned Osaka that “repeat violations attract tougher sanctions including default from the tournament.”
The Slams also said major offense investigations could lead to more substantial fines and future Grand Slam suspensions.
The other shoe fell on Monday with a decision that cost Osaka and some sportsbook customers a lot of money.
Osaka told her social media followers:
“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.”
Osaka decision sends sportsbooks scrambling
The European red clay isn’t Osaka’s strongest surface, but her status as the No. 2 player in the world drew heavy interest from bettors.
Her odds to win the French Open championship came in at around 12-to-1. That was the fourth-shortest odds in the 128-player field.
Some of the major sportsbooks in Iowa handled the news this way:
- DraftKings Sportsbook on Twitter: “With Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open, we will be refunding all futures on her.”
- PointsBet Sportsbook used its “Karma Kommittee” promotion to let customers know futures wagers on Osaka will be refunded as free bets.
- As of Monday, William Hill Sportsbook appeared ready to treat the Osaka news like an injury withdrawal: “You bet on her to win the tournament. She won’t win, so you lost that wager.”
- Betfred Sportsbook tweeted the breaking news but didn’t announce a plan of action for Osaka bettors. So, for now, customers may have to take the loss within that sportsbook’s rules as well.
- FanDuel Sportsbook offered a “Bad Beat Refund,” saying: “We’ve decided to refund all straight futures on Osaka to win the tournament. FanDuel also tweeted:
“If Serena Williams or Coco Gauff don’t win, we’ll also refund the ‘Williams, Osaka or Gauff to win the French Open’ odds boost.”
Analysis: Undisciplined messaging set up the Osaka mess
Osaka received praise from her fan base — but not all of her peers — when she announced plans to skip tennis press conferences.
To Osaka’s credit, follow-up statements contain more polish and less entitlement. Keep in mind: No female athlete in the world earned more than Osaka, according to a Forbes 2020 list of highest-paying athletes. Forbes estimates Osaka earned $37.4 million the previous year.
That total includes just $3.4 million in prize money, however. More than 90% of Osaka’s earnings came from sponsorships.
Osaka’s sponsors expect her to find the studio set of a broadcast partner after a match — and she’ll make those trips to earn millions. But, tennis and host tournaments need the biggest superstars at the press conferences, too.
Osaka didn’t seem willing to pair quotes with her court play, according to her initial statement:
“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health. And this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one.
“We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our mind and I’m just not going to subject myself to people who doubt me.
“I believe that whole situation is kicking a person while they’re down and I don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”
Based on that statement’s tone, Osaka seemed to think she shouldn’t get questions that seem repetitive or ones that explore why a poor performance unfolded. Unless, of course, she’s on an ESPN or Tennis Channel set.
Tennis community offers a different perspective
Nine of the top 10 female athletes on the Forbes 2020 list are tennis players. Billie Jean King hoped for exactly that when she formed the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) in 1973 to promote equal pay and treatment.
The hall-of-fame icon offered a gentle response to Osaka’s statement. King said she respects Osaka’s use of her platform and admitted being a little torn:
“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.
“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 acknowledges that social media has changed the dynamic but “the media still plays an important role in telling our story.”
“Media needs to respect certain boundaries, but at the end of the day it is important we respect each other and we are in this together.”
Tournament organizers at the French Open said Grand Slams “individually and collectively have significant resources dedicated to player well-being.”
“In order to continue to improve however, we need engagement from the players to understand their perspective and find ways to improve their experiences.”
Follow-up statement paves way for dialogue
Ultimately, Iowa bettors from Ackley to Zwingle want clarity when they log onto their favorite sportsbook for a tennis bet. Osaka’s sudden decision to withdraw threw off fans and sportsbooks alike. Her team released a better version of her point-of-view.
The global superstar accepted that her timing was not ideal and her message could have been better:
“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 knows I’m introverted. And, anyone that has seen me at tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones.”
She said the headphones help dull her social anxiety. She also said she gets huge waves of anxiety before she meets the international press. Osaka hopes to speak to the Grand Slam organizers. In the meantime, she is planning time away from the court. Sportsbooks will look for different favorites as tennis betting fans look ahead to Wimbledon and the US Open.
“When the time is right I really want to work with the tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.”