Naomi Osaka should head for Eastbourne's Devonshire Park - and this is why

The anticipation grows and the bustle of activity mounts. Yes, Eastbourne's LTA Viking International Tournament is barely a fortnight away, and we locals are allowed to get excited.

Saturday, 5th June 2021, 3:00 pm
Updated Saturday, 5th June 2021, 7:18 pm
Naomi Osaka has taken a step back from the media spotlight by withdrawing from the French Open / Picture: Getty

But at Roland Garros this week, at least one top player has felt the pressure. Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal has suddenly raised questions about media attention and players’ mental well-being.

They should have switched the whole French Open to Sussex. The Eastbourne week is really the antidote to stress, fraught nerves and athletic angst. The Devonshire Park has exactly the same, unfussy welcome for all. You can be a major star with an international reputation if you like, but you’ll still enter through the same gate as the ball-kids and still win a smile from the volunteer stewards. If your coach doesn’t notice, you can still cadge a free yoghurt sample from the promo staff, or slip out through the Towner Gallery gift shop and grab a ten-minute stroll on the seafront. It’s bliss.

For a year or so, Naomi Osaka has been vying with Ash Barty at the top of the WTA rankings. Two young players bursting with ability, but two quite different personalities. Osaka has never – yet – played Eastbourne, but with many grass seasons still ahead of her, we locals live in hope.

Osaka’s dazzling talent and her on-court star quality is belied by an off-court reserve. Immediately on winning a final, the winner must always deliver the swift, formulaic acceptance speech – thanks to the sponsors, the tournament organisers, the physio and the ballgirls – but even there, some players betray a rabbit-in-headlights shyness.

And that is before they face the press. It is not, emphatically not, a criticism of Naomi Osaka that she feels scrutinised or vulnerable. Sportsmen and women are not automatons. Imagine yourself, perhaps as a nurse or a chef or a teacher, suddenly facing a volley of questions about what you did this afternoon, from people you scarcely know.

But – and there are a couple of buts. Firstly, like it or not, the public scrutiny goes with the career. The major sports need sponsors, media coverage and huge audiences. Their leading stars will always attract public attention and the glare of the lights in their eyes.

Secondly, Naomi has a right to privacy beyond the press conferences, a right to support and counselling, and possibly even coaching in how to field the questions. And, of course, to expect civil, intelligent dialogue from the media.

For other players, including Ashleigh Barty, it seems second nature. Ash is actually a modest, grounded young lady with a distinctive career path: brought up in her family and not in the academies, then taking a three-year break from tennis and discovering an aptitude for just about every other sport that gets a ball from A to B – Ash is a also good enough cricketer to represent Australia at Test level. Next time she makes it to Eastbourne, we must fix up a game of stoolball for her!

But the last time Barty was listed for Eastbourne, in 2019, she had to pull out with an injury sustained at Birmingham the previous week. Now, plenty of players would simply withdraw through an LTA press release. Not Ashleigh. With her whole entourage, the World Number One climbed aboard her battle bus in Brum and drove all the way down to little old Eastbourne. At an impromptu, informal press conference on the Congress Theatre balcony, she apologised, literally apologised for pulling out. That was class.

But the Devonshire Park tournament was always distinctively different. Post-match press conferences are generally held in the cool if slightly subterranean comfort of the Towner Gallery’s in-house cinema. No massed ranks of paparazzi for us, thank you. Rather, the Eastbourne week is a gathering of the sport’s Great and the Good. Former players like Sam Smith and Annabel Croft; genial John Inverdale; and Dame Jo Durie (she isn’t actually a Dame but she certainly ought to be). And the questions are wise, perceptive and a proper sporting dialogue.

As for players, we get the full range in the post-match pressers. Some shy, some shattered, some bubbly, some battered. Some dour, some funny. Some highly articulate and happy to talk tactics; and others who only reply in cliches, although in fairness, many of the younger international players are still on the learning curve with the lingua franca of English.

But in a decade or so of covering the Devonshire Park tournament, I have yet to see a player reduced to tears. Should Naomi Osaka ever make it to the Sussex coast, she would find the kindest of Sussex welcomes. Breathe it in....