In a year of extreme highs and lows, Naomi Osaka questions when she will return to the court

It has been a year of extremes for Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, the world’s highest-paid female athlete, and a quiet, powerful embodiment of a new generation of athletes who are unafraid to share their views on civil rights and social justice.

In February, she won the Australian Open and joined Roger Federer and Monica Seles as the only players ever, men or women, to win their first four Grand Slam final appearances. When her home country of Japan hosted the Olympics this summer, Osaka was chosen to light the cauldron.

But she also revealed that she has struggled with depression and anxiety over the last several years as her star has risen and the pressure on her has grown.

In May, Osaka clashed with French Open organizers about whether she would conduct media appearances. After she was fined for skipping a news conference, Osaka withdrew from the tournament altogether.

“I would never trivialize mental health or use the term lightly,” she wrote in a statement in May announcing her decision to drop out of the tournament. “The truth is I have suffered long bouts of depression since the US Open in 2018 and I have had a really hard time coping with that.”

The prospect of Naomi Osaka stepping away from the sport indefinitely will undoubtedly send shock waves through the tennis-sphere and sports world.

To imagine a world without her competing and dominating her sport is a sad. At just 24 years old, Osaka has reached heights few ever do. She is supposed to take the torch from Serena Williams and keep it lit for the next two decades. But those plans may have to be paused as Osaka’s future in tennis is a question mark after her Open loss to unseeded 18-year-old Canadian named Leylah Fernandez.

Naomi Osaka did not want to be cut off. She did not want to be rescued. Yes, she was crying in her US Open postmatch news conference, crying as she struggled to find the right words so she could share what was on her mind, but each time the moderator tried to end it, assuming Osaka didn’t want to continue, Osaka overruled him. She was determined to get this out.

“Recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy,” Osaka said late Friday night. “I only feel relief. When I lose, I feel very sad. And I don’t think that’s normal. Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do. I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”

It was a stunning moment, and it might take on extra weight in the coming months — and years — if Osaka never plays professional tennis again. This isn’t the first time Osaka has announced she needed to take a break from the sport. She was, after all, coming off an extended break that saw her withdraw from the French Open and skip Wimbledon. But this felt different.

Osaka was clearly hurting, but before she slipped out of sight, she was going to find the composure to tell the world something.

She was not OK. And she wanted to admit that.

“I guess we’re all dealing with some stuff,” Osaka said. “But I know I’m dealing with some stuff.”

Ever since Osaka withdrew from the French Open after being informed she’d be fined increasing amounts if she didn’t consent to postmatch interviews, it felt as if Osaka was asking, just for a while, to let her tennis speak for itself. At least until the world felt less awful for her and talking made her less anxious.

Was she really asking for that much? And what did it say about us if we cared more about the talking than the tennis?

Maybe instead of longing for sound bites, we might learn something by slowing down and observing, letting her physical gifts reverberate in our consciousness, because a perfectly struck forehand has a language all its own. So does a racket thrown in anger.

What I saw, I now realize, was someone in pain.

I wonder if what I witnessed was an ending.

But also, maybe, a beginning.

Her return to the U.S Open this past week was one which had tennis fans extremely excited. Arguably the best in the world was returning to her natural habitat. And early on, it seemed she was back to repeat as Open Champion.

Osaka’s first-round match against Marie Bouzkova on Aug. 30 felt, for flashes, like a triumphant return to form. Despite all that had unfolded in the past last year, Osaka came to Queens as the defending champion. The last time she’d played a match in Arthur Ashe Stadium, she’d walked away with her second US Open trophy.

She appeared to be on her way to another, at least after the first and second round dominance.

But when she drew Fernandez in the third round after a walkover in the second, it felt like a dangerous matchup.

Osaka might have looked across the net at times against Fernandez and seen a version of her old self. It was Osaka who used to play fearless tennis, who pumped her fist between points and fed off the energy of the crowd inside Arthur Ashe. It was Osaka, once upon a time, who didn’t let mistakes bother her, who watched others unravel while she remained composed. But the deeper into the match she went Friday, the more obvious it was that something wasn’t right, either with her game or with her state of mind. Even after she broke Fernandez at 5-5 in the first set with a pair of majestic forehand winners, it didn’t seem to help her relax.

In the second-set tiebreak, Osaka’s anger bubbled over after each missed shot. She hit a forehand wide to fall behind 4-0, then slammed her racket into the ground, drawing a chorus of jeers from the crowd as she sheepishly walked to the net to retrieve it. She threw her racket again after losing the next point, receiving a warning from the chair umpire for her behavior. I was reminded of her US Open final against Serena Williams on this same court, when Williams infamously lost her cool as the match slipped away. Osaka spent much of the changeover before Friday’s third set with a towel draped over her head, looking as if she was trying hide from the world, longing to be anywhere else.

“I’m not really sure why [I did that],” Osaka said afterward, apologizing. “I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point. Normally I like challenges, but recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way.”

Fernandez broke Osaka’s serve in the first game, and from there, it was obvious it was only a matter of time. There would be no spirited rally.

Osaka tried to compose herself between points, taking deep breaths and an extra second to fiddle with the strings of her racket while her back was to the court, but all that accomplished was drawing jeers from the crowd. When the match ended with another unforced error by Osaka, Fernandez pumped her fists with ecstasy, soaking up a standing ovation from the fans. Osaka gave her a brief congratulatory hug, then quickly packed her things and departed, throwing up a gentle peace sign as she exited the court.

An hour later, she was wiping away tears, but adamant that no one was going to stop her from saying what she wanted — what she needed to say. This might be it for her, at least for a while. It wasn’t an answer to a question about her future; she volunteered the information unprompted. There were long bouts of silence as she tried get the words out.

When she finished, Osaka looked relieved. She put her mask back on and got to her feet.

She drifted toward the door, never once looking back.

Whatever is next for Osaka, be patient with Osaka. If she is ever going to get back on track to be one of the greatest to ever play the sport, she needs to first be great mentally, spiritually and emotionally.

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