PARIS — Naomi Osaka skipped her post-match news conference at the French Open on Sunday, as promised.
That didn’t mean she avoided a question about her problems succeeding on red clay.
Osaka returned to Roland Garros after skipping the trip last time, turning in a mistake-filled 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig at Court Philippe Chatrier on Day 1 of the Grand Slam tournament.
After the 2020 French Open was pushed to a September start with a limit of 1,000 spectators per day because of the coronavirus outbreak, things were closer to normal Sunday: It was a sun-kissed May day and more than 5,000 fans permitted, with a delay of only a week this year due to COVID-19 concerns.
While not quite back to its packed pre-pandemic self, Roland Garros did bubble with cheers and tennis.
Other results perhaps were more newsworthy — three-time major champion Angelique Kerber’s third straight first-round loss in Paris, for example — but the No. 2-ranked Osaka’s actions after her match were of interest.
That’s because she declared during the week that she won’t participate in news conferences in Paris — and she did not do a pre-tournament session with the media. What remained unclear was whether she would participate in the perfunctory exchange of pleasantries with on-court “interviewers” who lob softball questions so spectators can hear something from match winners.
As it turned out, Osaka did go ahead with that chat with former player Fabrice Santoro, who is hardly a journalist and kindly offered to help Osaka by carrying the flowers she was given by the tournament.
Santoro actually did raise the topic of the event’s surface, noting that Osaka’s Grand Slam titles only have come on hard courts.
She has won the Australian Open twice, including this year, and the U.S. Open twice, including last year. But she never has been past the third round at the French Open.
“I would say it’s a work in progress,” Osaka said about her game on clay. “Hopefully the more I play, the better it will get.”
Osaka wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday that she was not going to participate in the standard back-and-forth with the media in Paris — the sort of thing athletes in various sports do as a matter of course. She framed it as a mental health issue, saying that it creates self-doubt to have to answer questions after a loss.
Players at Grand Slam tournaments are required to attend news conferences if requested to do so; refusing is punishable by fines of up to $20,000, which is not much of a big deal to Osaka, the world’s highest-earning female athlete thanks to endorsement deals totaling tens of millions of dollars.
French Open organizers didn’t immediately respond to emailed questions about Osaka’s press conference and whether she would be fined.
“It’s her own choice. I think she’s capable of making her own choices and obviously she will do always what’s best for her,” Tig said. “I think that’s what’s happening now. It’s her choice of doing what she feels is best for her.”
As for her impression of Osaka’s on-court ability on clay, Tig offered this assessment: “If she wins, she’ll get used to it. She can play as good on clay as she plays on hard courts.”
Osaka showed how Sunday: controlling points with her attacking game. She won 31 of 35 points when her first serve landed in and accumulated 39 winners — more than twice as many as Tig’s 18.
Osaka next faces 102nd-ranked Ana Bogdan, who swept aside Italian qualifier Elisabetta Cocciaretto 6-1, 6-3.
The 26th-seeded Kerber was beaten 6-2, 6-4 by Anhelina Kalinina, a qualifier from Ukraine ranked 139th and making her tournament debut.
Roland Garros thus remains the only Grand Slam title that Kerber hasn’t won: She was the champion at the Australian Open and U.S. Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2018.
Also, 2019 Australian Open semifinalist and 2020 French Open quarterfinalist Danielle Collins defeated Wang Xiyu 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
In men’s action, 12th seeded Pablo Carreno Busta beat Norbert Gombos 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, and 27th-seeded Fabio Fognini broke a racket along the way to eliminating French wild-card entry Gregoire Barrere 6-4, 6-1, 6-4.
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