French tennis boss defends manipulation of Naomi Osaka

PARIS – Gilles Moretton, the president of the French Tennis Federation, took off his mask and leaned into the conversation across a large table Tuesday morning at Roland Garros.

Three months later, Moretton’s tenure hasn’t really started. The French Open, run by his organization, was blessed with sunshine for most of its first 10 days, but not much else.

The pandemic restrictions reduced the number of spectators allowed on the pitch and drastically reduced income just as the federation was due to start repaying hundreds of millions of euros borrowed for recent Roland Garros renovations. For the first time in history, no French singles player has crossed the second round. The biggest story of the first 10 days of the tournament has not been the games played, some of them exceptional, but the ones that never started.

There was the second round withdrawal of Naomi Osaka, the brightest rising star in women’s football, following a disagreement with Moretton and other leaders of the Grand Slam tournament over media duties. Roger Federer, still the biggest draw in men’s football at 39, retired after three rounds to preserve his post-operative right knee and energy for Wimbledon.

But Moretton, who was once good enough to take on Bjorn Borg at Roland Garros (taking a loss), didn’t bemoan his timing during an interview in the presidential box with a grand view of the main stadium, Philippe Chatrier Court , yet empty.

“I have arrived at a time when the situation is very difficult because of the pandemic and the results of French tennis,” he said. “But at the same time, I see it as an amazing opportunity. Because we have a saying that when you are at the bottom of the pool you are forced to start rising to the surface. “

Moretton has defended the handling of second-seeded Osaka’s refusal to participate in press conferences and other mandatory media duties, an announcement she made on social media ahead of the French Open that surprised Grand Slam officials.

Osaka’s initial announcement mentioned the need to preserve his sanity, without giving details. According to several tennis officials, Osaka did not respond to several requests to further explain the situation. She was fined $ 15,000 for missing a post-match press conference in Paris. Moretton and the leaders of the other three Grand Slam tournaments – Wimbledon and the Australian and US Opens – then issued a stern statement warning against escalating sanctions, including a possible expulsion from the tournament if it does. continued to abstain.

“I think we have done very well,” said Moretton, adding that officials had hoped to avoid sending Osaka out. “The goal was not to penalize her. It was a matter of saying clearly: here is the rule. “

Osaka withdrew the next day via social media, where she explained that she had experienced long bouts of depression since winning the US Open in 2018.

Rennae Stubbs, a former player who is an ESPN coach and analyst, said the French federation had “handled this horribly”. She and other former players said officials should have been more sensitive and avoided publicly threatening to penalize Osaka.

“I think we would have continued to fine him,” Moretton said. “I don’t think we would have gone for a harsh sanction because we understood the situation. But that’s the rule. The rule is there to be fair to all players. “

Osaka has since announced that it will take an indefinite hiatus from the tour.

Moretton, 63, said he was concerned about the mental health of the players. “The problem she raised is a real problem, a real topic of discussion,” he said.

But he said he was also keen to preserve the equal treatment of players and the ability of the media to cover the sport.

“Maybe we’ll change the rules, and then everyone will only come to the press if they want to,” Moretton said. “You will see that there are not many who will come.”

“Everyone will be their own journalist,” he added, “speaks when he wants to speak, says what he wants to say, answers only questions he wants to answer. And I think it’s a serious problem. So yes of course to the measures that will help and support the players, but let’s keep the freedom of the press to ask a question that could be uncomfortable and that interests the public, who are the ones who keep the athletes and personalities alive. “

As for Federer’s withdrawal, Moretton said he had “too much respect for Roger” to question his decision. Federer was not fined for the withdrawal. Guy Forget, the director of the Roland Garros tournament, told French news agency L’Équipe that Federer cited his knee as the official medical reason for his withdrawal.

“Everyone wants to see him play as long as possible,” said Moretton. “We know he will soon be 40 years old. It’ll be hard. We can see it, and he knows it himself, and he needs to preserve himself. “

Moretton intends to strengthen ties with other Grand Slam tournaments and create more unity that will give tennis leaders a stronger collective voice. Perhaps the star statement on Osaka was a product of this zeal.

The French federation, under former president Bernard Giudicelli, ruffled the sport last year by moving the start of Roland Garros from May to September without the approval of other tennis entities. The tournament was also set back a week this year, but Moretton insisted it was done in consultation with other tennis executives.

The one week postponement this year was made to allow more fans in the second week of the tournament, when French government restrictions were due to ease. The number of spectators allowed on the field will more than double from 5,300 to 13,000 on Wednesday and Thursday, and Moretton said there will be 5,000 spectators in Chatrier for the two singles finals.

The last fan-less night session was on Tuesday, when fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas beat second-seeded Daniil Medvedev 6-3, 7-6 (3), 7-5, in the quarterfinals.

“Our game was the game of the day, and Roland Garros preferred Amazon to the people,” said Medvedev, referring to Amazon Prime Video, which broadcast the nightly sessions in France.

Income is always down at an event that normally attracts 38,000 spectators per day. In 2019, the tournament generated 260 million euros, or around 316 million dollars. In 2020, it generated around € 130 million, and Moretton said the numbers would be similar this year.

“We are going to be hit hard,” he said.

Government aid and loans and the federation’s abundant reserves helped soften the blow and, more importantly for Moretton, preserve financial support for tennis clubs and leagues in France.

Moretton retired from the sporting events management industry and made two long trips to Nepal before being persuaded by friends to run for president of the federation.

Although he is from Lyon, he also considers Roland Garros as his homeland. At 12, he slept in a tent on the field while playing in a national junior tournament. He then lived there for a year, sharing a small house with other French aspiring pros, including Yannick Noah.

Noah won the French Open in 1983 and is the last French to do so. Moretton will now try to help develop Noah’s successor and work to make the rest of his four-year tenure smoother than the start.

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