It seems every day another tennis star succumbs to a self-described “mental health issue” that results in dropping out of tournaments or refusing interviews. There was the first case that dominated the sports page for weeks — Naiomi Osaka.
A headline today reads: To Play Tennis, Naomi Osaka finds a new purpose: feeling good about herself is her challenge.
Can you imagine world champions in golf or professional football confessing publicly that they need time off from the competition, from the interviews, from the stress? Can you imagine them confessing that they need to work on feeling good about themselves — confessing that they need to work on their mental health?
I happened to see a blimp’s eye view of a tennis tournament — a grandstand filled to capacity, the green of the court set off nicely, two tiny figures in tennis whites mid-way through a rally. Then it all became clear.
If you play football you’re not alone. You have teammates to back you if you blunder. You have teammates to embrace you when you score, and teammates to cheer when you succeed. Same for baseball. Making an error doesn’t turn your teammates against you. They sympathize.
In tennis — especially tennis singles — everything depends on you alone: serve after serve, volley after volley, netball after netball, missed return after missed return.
You’re singularly alone.
And if you feel bad about your play, you feel bad about yourself — there are no teammates to buck you up or give you a reassuring pat on the back, or share the burden of a miscue or error.
In tennis it’s entirely up to you — you alone — whether you feel good about yourself. No wonder Osaka avoids critical questions from the press, and has what the press now calls — in her case, and in other emerging cases of tennis pros — “mental health issues.”
Playing tennis is singularly lonely. The spotlight is singularly focused.
Postscript: From today’s sports page (Sept 7th):
“Osaka’s tournament ended this time with a loss to Fernandez followed by a tearful announcement that she will take an indefinite leave from tennis. Iga Swiatek, the Polish star who won the 2020 French Open at 19 without losing a set, spent much of her upset loss Monday against Belinda Bencic of Switzerland screaming at her coach and the sports psychologist who travels with her.
By now it is accepted wisdom that tennis has a tendency to eat its young like few other sports. Managing life as a young star on the tennis tour is a physical and mental test that trips up nearly every player at some point, especially those who break through early and then are suddenly expected to compete at the highest level nearly every time they take the court.”