Admirable Artists

Note to Naomi

Naomi Osaka left the French Open: her appeal to the machine that is the professional tennis circuit – to be excused from post-match interviews due to her anxiety, as she is battling depression – ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Full disclosure: I am not, have never been and never will be a professional tennis player (well, not in this incarnation). I can’t claim to understand first-hand what role the post-match interviews have in the grand scheme of the tennis world: my forte is not the intricacies of tennisy things.

I do know, however, what it’s like to be a public speaker, and to have to front up to an audience when feeling anxious, experiencing panic attacks and with the stubborn overlay of self-doubt blocking out the sun of success like a heavy wet blanket that can’t be removed, no matter how much I try. I’ve personally experienced the flash of white behind my eyes that wipes intelligible thought from the slate of my brain, exposing the vast wasteland of uncertainty and self-doubt that gnaws away at my confidence. I’ve felt the panic of despair as I realise I don’t know what I’m up to or how to proceed with whatever I’m delivering. I’ve learnt to mask it, so it’s not evident to the audience, but I’m still prone to the shock of an unwelcome, stultifying surprise when a panic attack rears its ugly head. Granted, not on the worldwide stage that Naomi graces, for I tread much smaller stages: nevertheless, they are stages where I am on view – and also judged.

Here are some of my stages:

***STAGE ONE: I front a class of students, who are at best so eager they shadow my every move (they’re usually the ones who correct my grammar when my speech runs ahead of my thoughts). The majority of the bell-curve of my class are disinterested, or at least more interested in the antics of their peers. At worst, they are openly hostile, challenging me to fix their miserable lives because they can’t.

***STAGE TWO: I present a paper at a conference. The eager (and more often than not, blurry-and-bloodshot-eyed-from-extreme-fatigue) faces of professional colleagues look expectantly at me, the lone person at the podium, to deliver fresh new ideas that will invigorate their passion for their profession. My inner critic crouches at my shoulder, waiting for my downfall, whispering, “Who are you to tell other professionals what’s great and what will make their lives easier, as a teacher in contemporary settings? How are you better, more experienced, more knowledgeable than they are?”

Don’t get me wrong: I like my teaching and choose which conference presentations to apply for. I’m delighted when my proposals are accepted because that is, after all, highly validating of the skills I have garnered within my thirty-plus-year career. It comes with the territory of my profession, just as post-match interviews come with Naomi’s chosen career. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.

***STAGE THREE: I read some poems from my book at book-readings. This is one of the most frightening public stages a person can get: proffering their original works to the wider world. So much of my soul goes into my books, and I can’t judge whether it’s worthy of public consumption as I’m too close to the material. Full of doubt and sweating metaphorical bullets, I charge on regardless, my internal monologue pushing me forwards. “Come on girl, you’ve got this, you wrote it, it’s published, you love the product, believe in yourself, your work will stand up to the public gaze …”

***STAGE FOUR: I stand with my guitar and start to sing. As long as I start on the right note the singing’s fine, it’s just that my hands don’t always find the chords cleanly. I’m dabbling in song-writing at the moment, and I like to put in unusual chords because they sound fantastic – but they are rarely easy to play, so at the pointy end of the performance when I’m facing the microphone I fumble with the barres and unfamiliar fingering. I shake inside when I’m playing originals, because I’m not trained in song-writing, and have no way to judge whether the songs are actually good or not: I leave that for others to judge.

Thankfully, the receptive audiences I’ve presented to have agreed that my books and my songs are worthy of being aired in the public sphere, which is highly affirming for me, as their creator!

Here are two things I admire greatly about Naomi Osaka, who from what I’ve observed in my casual glances at the tennis, is a deeply compassionate person:

*At a (pre-Covid) match when her opponent was distraught at having lost, Naomi went beyond the standard handshake to put her arm around her opponent’s shoulders and give her a comforting hug. Not being the grand final match, the expectation was that the loser would gracefully leave the court with no further ado. However, Naomi invited her opponent to stay for the winner’s post-match interview, encouraging the loser to speak as well. This not only took media time away from Naomi and her win (which many professional sportspeople would be hungry to exploit to the fullest, therefore not be willing to share), it also showed Osaka’s compassion for her opponent and allowed the loser her own five minutes of fame in the spotlight.

*Once Covid restrictions required players to wear masks, Naomi sported masks with names: each one different, and each one the name of a person of colour who had died in police custody. When asked by a reporter how she felt about her masks she deflected the question, saying, “The real question is how YOU feel about it: what does it make you feel?” Through such a response, she deftly and kindly reminded the whole world listening to the media grab that the situation of racism is EVERYONE’S issue, not restricted to the families of people of colour, and definitely not restricted to only those people of colour who are directly affected by their family and friends being victims of deaths in custody (and there are far too many of those).

This is the integrity I deeply admire about Naomi Osaka. This is why the world media and the professional tennis circuit juggernaut should take notes from the Dalai Lama and Be Kind to her, when she has openly stated to the world her current need for privacy, to heal.

Naomi Osaka: I stand with you.

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