Curtain up on French Open and Osaka’s code of silence

Osaka, the highest earning female athlete in the world last year, opted for a code of silence in protest at what she believes is the detrimental effect of media coverage on her mental health.

FILE: Naomi Osaka of Japan has made the decision to boycott all press conferences at the second Grand Slam event of the season . Picture: AFPPicture: @naomiosaka/Twitter

PARIS – Japanese superstar Naomi Osaka is the headline act as the curtain goes up at the French Open on Sunday but, win or lose, the world number two will be keeping her thoughts to herself.

The 23-year-old’s decision to boycott all press conferences at the second Grand Slam event of the season has ironically been the hottest topic at press conferences held by other players.

Osaka, the highest earning female athlete in the world last year, opted for a code of silence in protest at what she believes is the detrimental effect of media coverage on her mental health.

The four-time major winner says news conferences can be akin to “kicking people when they’re down”.

French Tennis Federation president Gilles Moretton, however, described Osaka’s move as a “phenomenal error”.

The WTA is understood to have “reached out” to Osaka in an effort to break the impasse which will cost the player up to $20,000 for refusing to carry out mandatory news conferences.

On the court Sunday, Osaka, who has never got past the third round in Paris, tackles Romania’s 63rd-ranked Patricia Maria Tig who won the Istanbul clay court title in 2020.

The tie, being played in bright sunshine but in front of a sparse crowd due to COVID-19 restrictions, is first up on Court Philippe Chatrier in a nod to evening prime time TV in Japan.

While Osaka refuses to speak, Greek men’s world number five Stefanos Tsitsipas had plenty to offer at his pre-tournament media conference, even quoting Britain’s World War II leader Winston Churchill at one stage.

Tsitsipas, who faces home player Jeremy Chardy on Sunday, is widely tipped as a potential champion should 13-time winner Rafael Nadal or world number one Novak Djokovic falter.

The 22-year-old took Djokovic to five sets in the 2020 semi-finals.

CROWD LIMITS

He has already captured the Monte Carlo Masters and Lyon titles on clay this season.

He also had a match point to defeat Nadal in the Barcelona final before the Spaniard recovered.

Tsitsipas has the advantage of being in the opposite half of the draw to Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer and their combined 58 Slams.

“Finally, for once,” he said after seeing the ‘Big Three’ all line up in the same section of a major for the first time.

Also in action Sunday is fourth seed Dominic Thiem, the 2018 and 2019 runner-up to Nadal.

Thiem faces Spanish veteran Pablo Andujar who defeated Federer on clay in Geneva last week.

US Open champion Thiem has won all of his three meetings with the 35-year-old Andujar and has never fallen in the first round in Paris in seven visits.

Sixth seed Alexander Zverev, the runner-up in Madrid, starts against fellow German Oscar Otte, a qualifier and ranked at 152 in the world.

Fresh from her first career clay court title in Madrid, Belarusian third seed Aryna Sabalenka faces Croatian qualifier Ana Konjuh.

The 144th-ranked Konjuh was runner-up in Belgrade last week when she was forced to retire with an injury against Spain’s Paula Badosa.

Former top 20 player Konjuh has undergone four surgeries on her right elbow in recent years, even falling out of the top 1,000 in 2019.

In a battle of former Grand Slam title winners, Victoria Azarenka, seeded 15, faces Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion in Paris.

This year’s French Open is being played just seven months after the delayed 2020 tournament.

In total, just over 5,000 spectators a day will be admitted at the Roland Garros site until 8 June.

That figure will then rise to more than 13,000 a day thanks to the government’s decision to raise fan numbers to a 65 percent limit of capacity.

The main setback for organisers, however, is that nine of their scheduled 10 evening sessions — an innovation for 2021 — will be played behind closed doors.

A government curfew of 9 pm will not be lifted until 9 June.

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