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Naomi Osaka Shouldn't Feel Pressured to Rush Return to Tennis

Osaka's mental health challenges are nothing new in her isolating sport. What is new is the acceptance she'll face—and the paths back—if she takes a prolonged break.

The racket went flying from her hands, caroming violently off the court, a vivid expression of Naomi Osaka’s frustration. It also marked a bit of foreshadowing.

Here Osaka was, the defending U.S. Open champion, on a Friday night in New York, in front of 20,000 fans and a worldwide TV audience of millions. And there were few places Osaka would less rather have been. The player on the other side of the net—Leylah Fernandez, an 18-year-old Canadian lefty of undersized physique and oversized heart—was making her life difficult. Errors began to infect Osaka’s game. Sadness unfolded her face. She was having no fun, and showing little interest in fighting through the discomfort.

Osaka lost the match, and, barely an hour later, the racket came out of hands more broadly speaking. In a postmatch press conference she explained: “I feel like for me recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy; I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.” As her tears began to leak, she said, “I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do.” She then added that she was going to take a break from tennis “for a while.”

It made for an excruciating scene—all the more so since it was, if not expected, hardly a surprise. On the eve of May’s French Open, Osaka asserted that she would not be availing herself for press conferences. The announcement was miscast and misconstrued as an entitled athlete flexing her muscle, or another front on the war against the media. In truth, this was a cri de coeur from a vulnerable athlete, struggling with her mental health and anxiety that was triggered by Q/A sessions.

After a three-month absence, Osaka returned to competing at the Tokyo Olympics, where she was honored as the lighter of the flame … but then flamed out in the singles competition, losing desultorily well before the medal rounds. She came to New York shouldering great expectations. The highest-earning female athlete in the world, she spent the week prior to the event making assorted appearances. Then, she won a match, lost a match, left in tears, and left The Republic of Tennis wondering why so many players are struggling with their mental health.

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The top seed in the women’s draw, Ash Barty was a dazzling junior player, but wasn’t much happy as a pro. She took off almost two full years, and says she nearly quit tennis altogether for before returning. Rebecca Marino, a 30-year-old Canadian took an indefinite break from tennis in 2013, citing mental fatigue; she didn’t play another Major event till this year. Coco Gauff, the ascending 17-year-old American, has referenced spiritual challenges: “I just feel like the media and everyone forgets that a mental injury is just as painful as a physical,” she posted. “Mental health is invisible, but it’s a very real issue.”

These challenges aren’t unique to the women’s game either. Dominic Thiem of Austria, the defending U.S. Open men’s champ, is missing from the tournament on account on a wrist injury; but it hasn’t been his only ailment this year. “I fell into a hole,’ he said earlier this season, describing his mental health struggles. The Australian player Nick Kyrgios can relate. He is reflexively described as “volatile” or “erratic” or, less charitably, “a talent waster.” He provided some more weight to heft to the characterizations when he said this summer: “I’ve been to dark places. Places where people like Naomi Osaka are right now when they talk about mental problems. But what I’ve been through was 20 times worse in my opinion.”

To its credit, the sport has recognized this issue and has been (uncharacteristically) proactive. Before the tournament, the USTA announced that it would offering be offering mental health services for players during the tournament, including providing quiet rooms. Both the ATP and WTA have been proactive about providing counselors. A vast cohort of players work with sports psychologists; and some with the means, including Kyrgios, bring them on the road. (It’s worth noting that Simone Biles referenced Osaka—and, by extension, tennis—when discussing why she chose to speak publicly of her mental health challenges in Tokyo.)

It bears stressing that different players encounter mental challenges for different reasons. Osaka’s situation and family history and triggers are not Kyrgios’s. But the sport itself comes with plenty of features inconsistent with peak mental hygiene. It’s hard to have a sense of place and grounding when you are on a circuit, pinballing around the globe, spending most nights in hotels, seldom enjoying the equivalent of a home game. The isolation only intensified during COVID-19, which complicated travel and added quarantines and the fear of getting sick in a foreign country. Barty, for instance, has been away from her native Australia since she left in March. (It’s all the more admirable that she was able to win Wimbledon in July; and all the more understandable she’s had some mental lapses, not least squandering a 5–2 third-set lead and losing to American Shelby Rogers on Saturday night.)

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Social media, as usual, serves as an accelerant. Players routinely walk off the court, turn on their phones and receive unspeakably vile messages, most from losers—in more ways than one—who have made unsuccessful wagers on the matches. After falling in the third to Angelique Kerber on Friday, the American Sloane Stephens reposted a sample of the loathsome messages she received. Reads one: “How about less time posing for pictures like a f------ s--- and more time practicing you f------ c---.”

Then, there is the sport itself. It was Andre Agassi who referred to tennis as “solitary confinement,” the ultimate of individual sports, where players aren’t even permitted to receive coaching during matches that can often span hours. Winning a match is as much about breaking the opponent’s spirit as it is about breaking their serve. All during a tournament during which every player in the draw, save one, leaves on a losing note.

The spate of player announcements, Osaka’s in particular, have, predictably become collateral damage in the culture wars. Upon the announcement of the U.S. Open quiet rooms, Megyn Kelly was quick to take to Twitter: “Good Lord please never let the snowflakes who need this sign up for our military.” Less click-baitingingly and more understandably, several former players wonder quietly how Osaka can shill for products from Ramen to Master Card and pose for magazine covers (including Sports Illustrated) and star in a Netflix documentary … and then claim that she is averse to rigors of being a public figure. (A version of this question was put to Osaka by a reporter in Cincinnati last month; she answered tearfully and her agent castigated the reporter as a “bully.”)

But instead of being symptomatic of softness or a snowflake generation, here’s a better explanation: These challenges have always existed. It’s simply that this generation has the vocabulary to express it. And the confidence that doing so will be accepted. Here’s how Lindsay Davenport, a former No. 1 and the 1998 U.S. Open champ, put it while speaking about Osaka on Tennis Channel over the weekend:

“It’s been there. I applaud Osaka for being so open with her emotions but who can forget the Jennifer Capriati press conferences in the 1990s? She was in tears begging for the media and people in general to cut her a break and give her some time to get better … The sport is brutal. There’s no question. And I lived it as a top player and I probably got one-millionth the attention and pressure that Osaka has. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. It’s so magnified now, but we’ve seen this, we players, in different generations.”

She’s right. And it makes you wonder how many past careers would have had different trajectories had we treated mental health as we do now? How many mystifying losses or lapses should be reconsidered? Conversely, when, say, Novak Djokovic wins Major after Major, are we allocating the right amount of credit to the composure and organizational skills required?

As for Osaka, here’s hoping she feels no pressure to return soon, if at all. If she needs inspiration, though, it exists in any number of places. There’s Serena Williams, still playing a few weeks shy of her 40th birthday. Which is to say that if Osaka, at age 23, takes years before returning, she still has plenty of time to add to her four Majors. There’s Barty, who took her break and now, measured and, by her accounts, happy, reigns as the world’s No. 1 player.

And there is tennis itself. The “brutal” sport also has a soft spot. Shelby Rogers, who beat Barty Saturday night, has fought through injuries and self-doubt they create, leaving her to question her relationship with the sport. She persisted and reached this conclusion: “Tennis is very up and down … Tennis is funny like that. Just when you’re like, ‘Why can’t I hit the ball in the court?,’ you love the sport all over again.”

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