Naomi Osaka: Scotsman writers recall their most awkward press conferences as tennis star quits French Open over media duties

The Naomi Osaka story raises some difficult questions over the relationship between the media and sport.

Japan's Naomi Osaka speaks at a press conference ahead of the Australia Open tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 18, 2020.

The young Japanese tennis star has withdrawn from this week’s French Open a day after being fined $15,000 by the tournament organisers following her decision not to speak with the press during the tournament.

The 23-year-old, who won her opening match against Patricia Maria Tig and was scheduled to face Ana Bogdan in the second round, had released a statement stating her intention to skip her media duties during Roland Garros because of the effects her dealings with the press was having on her mental health.

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Her actions highlight the pressure sports men and women, particularly those of a young age, can feel when faced with a roomful of inquisitive journalists prepared to ask the difficult, sometimes unpleasant questions that the audience want the answers to.

But the strain can work both ways, with reporters often on the receiving end of robust, and at times, rude responses from cantankerous athletes and coaches.

Here, Scotsman reporters recount their own most awkward press conference moments …

Andrew Smith – The ‘Moscow Mule’

Sometimes addressing the elephant in the room in a press conference can result in an ear-bleeding roar being aimed in your direction. So it was when Alex McLeish was Rangers manager in August 2004, facing a derby he couldn’t afford to lose on the back of a midweek Champions League qualifying exit...a loss to CSKA that led to a Sun back page in which donkey ears were photoshopped to his image under the headline ‘Moscow Mule’. I felt the febrile atmosphere that had taken hold in the intervening two days warranted asking Alex, with whom I had a good relationship, if he was concerned what might build up a head of steam were his team to lose at Celtic Park that weekend.

“Concerned about what, what do you mean?” he snapped.

“With your job,” I practically whispered out, sensing I was verbally lighting a fuse...

At that point he shot up from his chair, muttering furiously about “ridiculous question”, before he just about yanked the room door off its hinges as he charged through it. Only to reappear round the poor frame a second later, jabbing his finger at me and shouting: “You’ll lose your job before I do.”

As it was, within the week we had shaken hands and laughed over the incident. Alex ended up going on to produce a dramatic turnaround to lead the Ibrox club to the title. I, meanwhile, remained in position to write about it.

Patrick McPartlin – ‘Any questions?’

I haven't been involved in many awkward press conferences myself but the most toe-curlingly excruciating one I've seen is relatively recent - and from the world of tennis.

Hubert Hurkacz had just beaten Thomas Fabbiano in the first round of the Monte Carlo Masters in April and turned up for the post-match press conference.

It was suggested that he take a couple of questions in English followed by some in his native Polish... except there were no questions. At all. In either language.

The awkward silence was punctuated by doors opening and closing in the background and the press officer repeatedly asking: "Any questions?" before Hurkacz thanked everyone before laughing and leaving.

Conducting press conferences via Zoom during the Covid-19 era hasn't always been straightforward so fair play to Hurkacz for coping with what must have been a difficult situation.

David Oliver – Repeat 29 times

Media day ahead of the Superbowl provides open access for the two teams ahead of the biggest night in American sport - great access and opportunity, unless you've got Marshawn Lynch ahead of you.

In 2015, the Seattle Seahawks running back fulfilled his obligations - to the very second - by appearing for the requisite five minutes and fielding questions.

He did not share the opinion that the access was a good thing and his single response to highlight his reluctance to participate, was "I'm just here so I don't get fined".

He uttered it 29 times as journalists enquired, probed, cajoled and questioned until his phone's timer alarm signalled his mandatory minimum appearance time was up, and he was off.

Without providing any usable quotes or soundbites, he still managed to occupy the headline spots ahead of the big game - which his team lost to New England Patriots in the final 20 seconds of a particularly dramatic match.

Alan Pattullo – Tannadice assault

It’s often surprising just how aggressive press conferences can be. I was present when a tearful David Seaman tried to handle some very pointed and direct questions following his mistake which gifted Brazil victory over England at the World Cup in Japan in 2002.

Even as recently as last week, Kilmarnock manager Tommy Wright was understandably bristling after watching his side lose to Dundee in the play-off final. When emotions are running high, it’s inevitable that some spikey moments will ensue.

But rarely do they lead to physical violence as happened at Tannadice on 14 October 2000 when then chairman Jim McLean was asked about manager Alex Smith’s future after a 4-0 defeat to Hearts. BBC Scotland reporter John Barnes had barely got the question out before there’s an off camera muffled kerfuffle that it turned out was McLean physically assaulting the interviewer. It remains a Youtube staple to this day having been viewed over two million times.

Moira Gordon – Lennon’s rant

Every journalist will have been in a press conference where the young star looks like a fawn caught in the headlights and it takes real effort to glean more than a monosyllabic response, they will also have sampled their fair share of verbal jousting with those more experienced in the art.

But, sometimes, the ferocity of the exchanges can make things difficult.

Neil Lennon is not one who tends to hold back. It makes him an engaging interviewee but, occasionally, he can also be explosive.

That was the case, in 2017 when, in the aftermath of a bust up between Hibs and Morton players and staff, he took issue with his Cappielow counterpart Jim Duffy’s comments and the reporting of the feisty matchday rammy, and walked into a press conference with all guns blazing.

Announcing that a camera was recording the sit-down, he asked one paper’s representative to leave and then spent 20 minutes seething, shouting, finger wagging and banging the table as he vented. Questions were asked, he roared his responses, and then he marched out.

That was explosive but still decidedly less awkward than the press conference with the losing US Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles, in 2014, when Phil Mickleson threw team captain and golfing legend Tom Watson under the bus, all while the man himself was just a few seats along from him on the same stage.

If the journalists felt awkward, that was nothing compared to the fellow US golfers who shuffled uncomfortably in their seats, suddenly unable to look anyone in the eye. Rarely, has anyone bolted for the exits as quickly and as gratefully as they did when the evisceration was over.

Barry Anderson – The Riccarton Three

In October 2006, three Hearts players hijacked a press conference to protest at the way the club was being run by then-owner Vladimir Romanov. Captain Steven Pressley, goalkeeper Craig Gordon and midfielder Paul Hartley stepped in before a pre-match media briefing was due to start, with everyone in the room wondering what was going on. All three sat down and Pressley read out a prepared statement, admitting there was "significant unrest within the dressing room" following a turbulent and chaotic 18 months under Romanov. It's still the strangest press conference I've ever covered. It was inside the Hearts training ground at Riccarton and the bizarre thing was Romanov was upstairs at the time. He had threatened to sell all the players if they did not beat Dunfermline the following day. They drew 1-1. Needless to say it wasn't a threat he was able to carry out.

Scott Inglis – ‘Been places, done things’

Billy Brown's infamous “I've been places and done things!" post match outburst was actually rooted in a half time incident when, with his East Fife team losing at the break, he grabbed the mic from the match announcer to berate a section of fans who were booing the side as they left the park.

After going on to lose the match he was asked simply what he had been most disappointed with, the result or the behaviour of some of the club's own supporters.

The question clearly triggered something in his head and he paced around in front of the camera while delivering his furious response, obviously irritated with some of the negativity he'd encountered from the stand earlier in the afternoon.

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