Fewer than seven months ago, Naomi Osaka held a Grand Slam trophy for the fourth time in her career. At a mere 23 years old, Osaka had crossed a threshold in Australia — she wasn’t just the top women’s tennis player in the world but on a path toward becoming one of the best of all time.
On Friday, she walked off the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium still a 23-year-old with four Grand Slams but in a much different context — trying to find the right words through the tears, struggling to understand what she wants her purpose to be and clearly at a crossroads with the sport that has brought her worldwide fame and wealth beyond comprehension.
Osaka, the No. 3 seed and defending U.S. Open champion, suffered a stunning defeat in the third round Friday night to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, the 73rd-ranked player in the world. But the bigger news came after the final ball was hit in Fernandez’s 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 win when Osaka said she needed a break from tennis and did not know when she would be back on the court.
Given everything that has transpired since Osaka’s Australian Open title, we can’t rule out the possibility the answer is never.
“For me, recently, when I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief,” Osaka said, answering a question at the end of her news conference that was asked in Japanese. “And then when I lose I feel very sad and I don’t think that’s normal. I didn’t really want to cry but basically I feel like…”
As her voice trailed off into a long pause, the moderator tried to end the press conference, but Osaka wouldn’t allow it.
“I kind of want to finish this,” she said before taking a deep breath. “So basically I feel like … this is very hard to articulate. So basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do and honestly I don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”
And with that, Osaka flashed two thumbs up and walked away from this U.S. Open. Whether she’s walking away from tennis entirely will now loom over the sport until we hear from her again.
But it’s very clear, even without a full understanding of the depression and mental health issues Osaka has struggled with over the last couple years, that what happened in 2021 can’t continue.
If tennis is the cause of her problems, she should walk away and do whatever she wants to do. But if tennis is part of the solution, then she needs to be a full-time player. Trying to walk a line between the two seems to only cause her pain.
To watch Osaka’s news conference Friday night was a glimpse into difficulties she has been dealing with. It was uncomfortable. It was also illuminating. At one point, when asked about smashing her racket and generally looking frustrated and impatient after she failed to put away the match in the second set, Osaka said she used to enjoy getting challenged on the court but lately had been anxious when things didn’t go her way.
In that moment — before she broke down and announced she was taking a break from tennis — the thought occurred to me that perhaps the answer to a lot of her issues on the court was simply playing more.
The reality of the sport that has extracted so much of Osaka’s talent in a few short years is that it’s too demanding to be played at the highest level as a part-time gig.
After the Australian Open win, Osaka was very up-front about her intentions to play fewer tournaments throughout the year and focus on the Grand Slams and a small number of other big events. That’s a formula great players have typically tried at the end of their careers to preserve their bodies, not in their early- and mid-20s when they’re trying to get the most out of their physical prime.
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After Osaka lost a string of matches this spring on clay, which preceded the flap at the French Open over not talking to the media, she was off the tour until the Olympics while her competitors were grinding out tournaments all over Europe. With so little tennis under her belt this year, it’s not a huge surprise that she struggled to put together winning performances under pressure.
Beyond whatever other mental health issues she deals with, Osaka has to come to grips with the idea that losing isn’t just acceptable, it’s totally normal.
Ash Barty, who has taken over the No. 1 ranking this year, is putting together perhaps the best season by a women’s tennis player since Serena Williams at her peak winning Wimbledon and four other titles. She’s also lost seven times this year and had really bad days. The story of Roger Federer isn’t merely his 20 Grand Slam singles titles, it’s the 11 times he’s lost in a final, including some absolute heartbreakers. In tennis, that’s what makes you human.
Whether Osaka’s depression and discomfort with the spotlight can ever be compatible with professional tennis is something only she can answer. Given her immense talent, let’s hope so.
But even if she never picks up a racket again, she’s already secured her spot in a pretty select group of Grand Slam-winning women. She owes us absolutely nothing. If her ultimate decision is to move on to something else, we can only appreciate what she accomplished and hope there’s something else that gives her happiness.
It was clear in the aftermath Friday night that Osaka needs to spend a lot of time in the next weeks and months deciding what she wants her life to be. But if losing a tennis match turns out to be the low point of this journey, she’ll eventually figure out the best way to make the rest of it work just fine.