The Soapbox: I Say When — Naomi Osaka’s modern reshaping of the femme fatale

Brandi Chambless

In 1991, Julia Fiona Roberts had already secured a Golden Globe for her iconic role in the Garry Marshall film Pretty Woman and was well on her way to taking home the trophy for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, only to be usurped at the finish line by Kathy Bates for her portrayal of power, control, and manipulation at its highest level in Misery.

Though Bates was not a true femme fatale who exploited her sexuality, she was a mastermind of dominion in the Stephen King psychological thriller. Bates’ character eventually met her own on-screen demise, to be expected of any quintessential femme fatale who steals control of her own destiny.

Like Bates, Pretty Woman’s Vivian Ward also did not epitomize a true femme fatale with an underlying agenda of dominating corporate playboy Edward Lewis, yet by the portrayal of a woman suddenly exerting her own will over the demands placed upon her, the world has forever been bequeathed the powerful movie quote, turned meme: I say when.

In no way will this column attempt to pull off the unthinkable feat of legitimizing a sex worker whose final prize is her “happily ever after” in spite of her illicit, albeit artistically forgivable, path to independence; nor will it necessarily become an analysis of gender studies and their impact upon society.

All other things considered, this is the tale of the nouvelle darling of tennis gone wrong, in a world that is left with nothing but a state of confusion while searching for an appropriate reaction to the delicate nature of an ongoing situation. I am speaking of World No. 2 Naomi Osaka’s abrupt withdrawal from the French Open due to her newly announced mental illness, namely depression, caused by inability to face the media in post-match interviews.

This tragic tale should matter not only to women, but to all achievers who are on the precipice of cementing a place in history that would otherwise be impossible without the highest skill, level of determination and, frankly, supernatural giftings endowed by the Creator.

These things I write to you, Dear Reader, I do carefully write, with the utmost concern. If today, you hear a Mama’s voice or, Heaven forbid, a coach’s voice (the likes of one whom I once knew) in what I am about to say, I ask you to simply chalk it up to my opinion and to be as tolerant of it as you would of all the things that you say matter.

Let me start off with being very transparent about two things. #1. I am Naomi Osaka’s biggest fan. #2. I am so upset about the manner of Osaka’s departure that it has gripped me in the night as I wrestled with my own reasoning of how Osaka might have better balanced courage of conviction along with self-care. That said, this may not be easy on the ears for some.

The reason I know this to be true, is that I am about to liken the Osaka withdrawal to a Meghan Markle 2.0 in which someone with all the opportunity in the world creates a press stir about not wanting any press, while subsequently seeking the very spotlight they purportedly averted. The high price of marrying a prince or beating the World No. 1, might have been better classified by understanding the need for a young lady trying to navigate her own course by taking her life back, which likely was completely necessary in both the Markle and Osaka cases.

While it may be more palatable for Markle to become an ambassador for mental illness awareness, as a tennis fan, I cannot help but feeling sickened over Osaka’s hasty departure. Oh that I could cheer her on… “Don’t quit now!!”

Osaka’s public admission of mental defeat renders her permanently self-defeated in the mental game of tennis until she proves otherwise. To compare the drama of sport to the drama of cinema, Sophia Loren, once stated of her personal craft (which wasn’t tennis, by the way), “Sex appeal is fifty percent what you’ve got and fifty percent what people think you’ve got.”

The great irony of the entire situation is that Osaka freely admits the culprit to her demons is Serena Williams’ invisible force field, following the World No. 1 public meltdown when Osaka defeated her in the 2018 U.S. Open. Prior to that, Serena had been the Goliath of tennis whose temporary demise was only met by a shy woman of color, carrying five smooth stones and her sling, the only one able to defeat the proverbial giant. With no other Japanese woman ever winning a Grand Slam, Osaka’s response was an apology to the crowd as she covered her own head. Is it any wonder that Serena Williams now is the number one advocate for Osaka’s path to leaving tennis to become a superstar mental health brand ambassador, time off for rest, and a big ole reconciliatory hug?

In addition, what we have here is the highest paid female athlete in the history of all sports, Naomi Osaka, who apparently did not allocate one dollar of her $55 million in earnings toward a speaking coach who might have equipped her with five standard responses that can be generally used during press briefings. We have witnessed a complete failure of her team, who rode the wave of Osaka’s success only to let her succumb to an off-court mental collapse from the fear of a microphone. We have the death of the art of conversation in which the current generation struggles to answer basic inquiries like, “How was your day?” or “Tell me about yourself.”

In all fairness to her team, assuredly, it is very difficult to boss around a 23-year-old multi-millionaire who has more money and power than she can handle. But, as the Uncle Toni (Toni Nadal) of tennis recently stated, “It seems unheard of, if she was affected by such ills, she did not communicate it…” Instead, her decision was a brazen post upon arriving to the French Open that stated she would not be doing any of the required press conferences. Commentary from the likes of Martina Navratilova to political pundits that has later been retracted remains widespread and unforgotten, “She tried to make a situation better, but only made it worse.” Boris Becker chimed in and has added that if Osaka cannot meet media obligations, then her career is in danger.

Osaka’s struggles have, seemingly, not prevented her from doing anything except the mandatory media interviews following tennis matches. She has continued to strike business deals as a brand ambassadrix for companies like Sweetgreen and made a slightly sexualized appearance on the cover of Vogue. Since also withdrawing from Wimbledon, citing the same mental health issues, Osaka has reshaped herself as the femme fatale of her own drama by doing more than straightening her hair. She has pulled the ultimate power play by essentially flipping off the entire tennis world with her own version of I say when, I say who, and I say how much.

If being a tennis champion requires the warrior’s ability to be an overcomer, then it’s no wonder Serena Williams has remained on top for longer than anyone. She has overcome getting out of shape, suffering through a major illness, being pregnant as a player, adjusting to motherhood, the general malaise of being an aging elite athlete, and worldwide scrutiny following her public meltdown. In spite of Osaka getting “Serena’s” trophy, Williams has a knack for returning to the fight. In the epic men’s game right now, a Rafa or Roger withdrawal are far more understandable, since both men are in the twilight of their careers, rather than the dawn.

For Osaka, if being a tennis champion is no longer the goal, after achieving enough wealth for a lifetime, then the path to mental illness advocacy is paved. But I can’t help but wonder, if not so long ago some brave young men in the prime of their youth found life after Normandy, then surely, the same lioness that fuels Osaka on the tennis court will give her prowess with the press! Little girl, get up! Take up your mat and walk out of that infirmity. We think you gotta lotta potential, Naomi Osaka!

Brandi Chambless
Read Brandi's column each month in The Cross Timbers Gazette newspaper.

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