Dame Susan Devoy on Naomi Osaka: 'Nerves nearly killed me'

Dame Susan Devoy says she dreaded press conferences during her time competing. Photo: RNZ
Dame Susan Devoy says she dreaded press conferences during her time competing. Photo: RNZ
Dame Susan Devoy says she can understand the pressures that led to tennis star Naomi Osaka's refusal to speak to media during the French Open.

Osaka stunned the tennis world when she pulled out of the Grand Slam earlier this week after being fined and threatened with expulsion for declining to face the media after her first-round match.

The four Grand Slam tournaments have since given their support to Osaka for sharing her experience, and promise change.

Former world champion squash player Dame Susan Devoy told Morning Report although it had been about 40 years since she had been on the circuit, she could still remember what it was like.

"I dreaded the dreaded press conference then so I can imagine it's got an awful lot worse... It's a shame that it takes events like this to bring it out, that people can start having proper conversations about it."

It felt like it was 80 percent about maintaining "mental toughness" and 20 percent about physical form when athletes reached the top of their game, she said.

"But being mentally tough on a sporting field or on a court or whatever, doesn't always necessarily translate into your mental health and wellbeing.

Naomi Osaka at a post-match press conference last year. Photo: Getty Images
Naomi Osaka at a post-match press conference last year. Photo: Getty Images
"She [Osaka] is talking about getting anxious. Probably people didn't know that nerves nearly killed me when I was competing for nearly 10 years at the top.

"That relief when I finally retired, and [knowing] I'm not going to go through that anymore, was something that I carried. It was a burden for me, the whole of my sporting career. A sporting career should never be a burden. It should - as well as hard work be - a joy and a pleasure."

In Osaka's case, there was probably more than meets the eye, she said.

"I think we've got to start taking better care of athletes' all-round wellbeing. I think the press conference is just one example, but perhaps it's time to look at the very outdated method of questioning and make some really good changes.

"With social media and everything, generally athletes these days are not actually being themselves."

She said press conferences often felt like athletes being probed so that media could get a story.

"I just listened to Devon Conway's [story], what an articulate, wonderful story about a Test debut and that's what conversations with media or sports journalists should be all about, but it seems to have changed and put a lot of pressure on athletes.

"I do remember having to sit in front [of media], on the occasions I lost, and you tend to think that people are just about gloating if you're being number one and then something has happened to you, that's sort of how you feel, that's probably just your perception and not very real.

"In this day and age, with social media, with the digital presence, they must feel like every single step they take is being scrutinised or monitored or there is no way of getting away from it.

"But I think that if people are acknowledging it's an issue, then really it's time everyone got their heads together to see how it can be made better for everyone."

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