He asked this of everyone. Superstars and rookies, victors and the vanquished. Scores of players troop through the windowless press conference suite in the early rounds, so the rest of the reporters quickly became exasperated by their colleague who - they were sure - must have been employed by an ultra-niche “guest publication” of the type featured on Have I Got News For You - Towel Monthly, perhaps.
I mention this in the wake of Naomi Osaka’s volley of criticism of what she sees as journalists’ negative questions, which began with the world No 2 announcing a media no-show at the French Open which subsequently brought her a fine which was followed by the player quitting Roland Garros.
Osaka later revealed mental health issues for not wanting to “subject myself to people that doubt me” and apologised for tarring all journos with the same brush. Now, I’m not privy to the Japanese’s state of mind and hope she gets over her problems, but in my experience of covering tennis these post-match press conferences are never spotlight-and-thumbscrews affairs. They can be as rigorous as having one’s back gently massaged with, yes, a luxuriously plump Wimbledon towel.
The question to Rafael Nadal - “Rafa, could you please tell us about the watch you wear” - is one that has been stored away for the special day when I can deploy it, pinning my subject to the ground like the slavering hound many sportsmen and women view journalists to be, and claiming a Watergate-standard scoop.
Lots of athletes are thin-skinned but maybe tennis players more than most. Two years ago at Wimbledon Johanna Konta was asked about 34 unforced errors in her quarter-final defeat and whether she could have “perhaps” done better in key parts of the match. She exploded. “Is that your professional tennis opinion?” she hissed.
The questioner conceded he wasn’t at the elite level, merely “a spectator alongside everyone else at Centre Court willing you on”. Konta countered: “I don’t think you need to pick on me in a harsh way.” He tried again, suggesting she would presumably hope to learn from the defeat for future tournaments, whereupon he was accused of being “patronising” and “disrespectful”.
This was a poor performance from Konta, her second of the day. Doubtless in tennis - as in all sports - talking about a defeat minutes after it’s happened can be tough. The unspoken justification for these immediate interviews, of course, is the prospect of good drama, a rant or some tears. But at Wimbledon the BBC nab the players straight off the court. By the time we, the written press, get them they should have had time to process the match. If beginning a question “Perhaps … ” is provocative or insulting then we should all throw in the towel.