In any competitive field, there is a constant cycle of training to win, until that first loss and you have to begin all over again. Naomi Osaka is no stranger to this. Osaka has been a dominating figure in the tennis world, though recently she stated that she may take an indefinite break after her loss in the U.S. Open. Her decision draws attention towards the important although ignored topic of professional athletes’ mental health.
Naomi Osaka, at only age 23, has already made an impressive statement as a professional tennis player representing Japan. She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion and the reigning champion of the Australian Open. After winning the Australian Open in February, Osaka became the third tennis player ever to win their first four Grand Slam final appearances. She was also given the honor of lighting the cauldron during the Summer 2021 Olympics, hosted in Japan. Osaka is the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam title as well as the first Asian tennis player to hold the title of The World’s Number 1 rank by the Women’s Tennis Association`.
In the U.S. Open, the defending champion lost to 18 year old Canadian Leylah Fernandez in a close and emotional match. After the upset loss, Osaka began to tear up in her post-match news conference, “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. And I don’t think that’s normal”. Unfortunately, this mindset is common among professional tennis players who lose their passion due to the burdens and pressures solely resting on them. The emotional tennis player then mentioned her potential future or lack thereof in the competitive field, “This is very hard to articulate. Well, basically. I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match”.
Osaka potentially stepping away from the sport has been heartbreaking though not a surprise. The athlete made headlines after she withdrew from the French Open in May due to here conflict with the organizers over post-match news conferences, Osaka chose not to attend interviews because it caused her too much mental stress. After she was fined for skipping these mandatory media duties, Osaka decided to drop out of the entire tournament itself. Osaka publicly spoke about how she had “suffered long bouts of depression since the U.S. Open in 2018 and [she has] had a really hard time coping with that.” She also chose not to participate in Wimbledon, having about a two month break before returning for the Olympics.
Osaka’s unfortunate experiences being exposed and judged by the rest of the world brings to light the mental health and pressures of professional tennis players. Most athletes are afraid of their careers ending early because of their mental health rather than physical health. Numerous players have quit or broken down because they lose in the only thing they want to be perfect at. There is also an overwhelming sense of loneliness for players as they train alone for hours on end and participate in a grueling eleven month season across the world. In tennis singles there is only one winner, meaning the pressure is on for athletes to always perform perfectly every time. The pandemic has magnified these feelings of isolation and burdens, at tournaments, players are alone in either their hotels, practice courts, or venues.
Osaka has been through a lot in the past year. She marched with protestors in Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd; after Jacob Blake was shot, her sport came to a standstill because she refused to play the semifinal match in the Western & Southern Open. In the U.S. Open last year, Osaka wore masks on court with the names of different victims of police brutality. One can only imagine what Naomi Osaka has gone through in terms of both highs and lows. Naomi Osaka may have technically lost in the U.S. Open, but she has truly won a lot more in life.