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The Mental Health of Professional Tennis Players Goes Beyond Naomi Osaka

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On September 11, 2021, the teenage tennis Cinderella story played out in the final of the U.S. Open women’s championship, where 18-year-old British qualifier Emma Raducanu (then-ranked No. 150) beat 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez (then-ranked No. 73). The amount of milestones these two teenage women of color achieved is hard to fathom; it’s really a double fairytale.

The other remarkable thing about Raducanu’s victory is that in her only other Grand Slam appearance at Wimbledon this year in her home country, she retired in the fourth round. In this match, she ”found it very hard to regulate her breathing,” she described the next day. While these problems could have a physical source and Raducanu herself has not used such mental health terms like “anxiety” or “panic attack” she did post that “the whole experience caught up with her.” In response, a number of “middle-aged male commentators” criticized the 18-year-old in her first Wimbledon, essentially for quitting and not being mentally tough enough.

Earlier in the tournament, Naomi Osaka lost to Fernandez and commented that a win is now a relief, not a joy, and a loss is abnormally sad. Understandably, she announced she is uncertain about her future career or even when she’ll play her next match. World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty also experienced something similar to her rival Osaka. Barty won the junior final at Wimbledon at the age of 15 and has since spoken of how the media attention of a sports-obsessed nation thirsty for a new tennis champion overwhelmed her as a shy, introverted Aussie from a very humble and self-effacing family in suburban Queensland. Once she came on to the tour, she only lasted a few years before she too took an indefinite break from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) after the 2014 U.S. Open, aged only 18. Although not much was publicized about the mental health aspects of her decision at the time, once she came back to the tour after two years, she spoke about the therapy she did: “The most confronting thing you can do is talk about your feelings and open yourself up … I remember most sessions [with a doctor] would end in tears, and then I’d walk out feeling a million times better.”

Barty and Osaka are not the only female players to take time out from the sport because of mental health. Canadian player Rebecca Marino, who like Raducanu qualified for this year’s U.S. Open, was once ranked No. 38 in the world when she was 20, but by 22 had retired on account of clinical depression which made her not even able to get out of bed let alone take the tennis court. While there were likely a number of factors that led to the development of Marino’s depression, according to her Ted Talk from 2013 entitled “Slipping Through the Cracks” she was totally unprepared for it, had no idea what was going on, and had no one to talk to.

This last point of no role model and no one to confide in is a common theme in many tennis players’ experience of mental health distress. Once Marino did share her battle with friends and family, she began to mentally recover. But the passion for tennis was gone even after a six-month break, so she made the decision to retire early. In 2018, five years after her retirement, her passion for tennis returned and she began playing much lower challenger events. She is still working her way back to the top 100, but it seems to be less about the tennis results as about how she has her mental health back on track, as she expressed before this year’s Australian Open: “I’m definitely really proud of myself … I think it has been quite a challenge and a roller coaster through life so to get back and have a moment like this is really redeeming…”

It is deeply sad that these young, gifted female players often have to deal with their pain alone while they are thrust into the spotlight. The pressures must be enormous and exacerbated not just by the pressure of winning matches and tournaments in front of thousands of people live and millions on TV, but also the pressure of expectations of media and sponsors and the WTA. The pressure would be overwhelming for any player let alone someone who struggles with their mental health, especially at the elite level where players are indoctrinated from a disturbingly young age to be mentally tough without any sign of weakness acknowledged.

This is certainly the theme of the excellent Netflix special “Untold: Breaking Point,” released during this year’s U.S. Open. The subject of this special is former American World No. 1 Mardy Fish, who at the height of his success suffered in silence with an anxiety disorder in order to maintain the mental toughness he’d been taught. Like Barty, he also suffered from the pressure of a sports-obsessed nation fixated on the immediate gratification and expectation of a history of U.S. champions. His disorder culminated in forcing him to forfeit against Roger Federer in the fourth round of the 2013 U.S. Open only hours before he was due to take the court.

I loved this Netflix special because it reframes the idea of mental toughness from not showing “weakness,” as is taught in many elite sports, to honestly disclosing your mental vulnerabilities in asking for personal and professional help. It is far stronger to be able to seek help and to be able to admit them publicly and even to become an advocate for speaking them into the world. This is pure mental toughness rather than the mental fortitude it takes to win a tennis match. When Fish forfeited his primetime match to Roger Federer, one of the greatest players of all time, because of intrusive racing and ruminating thoughts, that’s when he was at his weakest but also his strongest — similar to Simone Biles. He explained: “And before the biggest match of your career, prioritizing your mental health enough to say, You don’t have to play… Don’t play … That, too, is strength.”

There are many more powerful and inspiring moments in “Untold: Breaking Point” as it exposes that the philosophy of elite sports often is antithetical to mental health, which makes no concessions for those who cannot just win at all costs. Like both Marino and Barty, Fish found that what saved him was the opposite of elite sports mentality, that is once he started talking about his disorder and articulating his great pain and fear, then he could become strong and could make a comeback both to tennis but more importantly to life. As Fish wrote in the Player’s Tribute before his final U.S. Open in 2015: “To show weakness, we’re told, in so many words, is to deserve shame. But I am here to show weakness. And I am not ashamed … And that strength, ultimately, comes in all sorts of forms. Addressing your mental health is strength. Talking about your mental health is strength. Seeking information, and help, and treatment, is strength.”

Finally, at the end of the U.S. Open, tennis legend Venus Williams wrote a guest essay for the New York Times on her experience of prioritizing her mental health through all the challenges she has faced including an autoimmune disease. In the article, she further emphasizes the points her fellow players made in my article: “Paying attention to my psychological well-being has allowed me to love the game of tennis for this long. I guess you could say, it’s the thing that has really made me tough … I am excited to lend my voice to destigmatizing mental illness, and it starts here: Let’s show up for ourselves and for each other and recognize what it takes to be truly strong.”

Image via YouTube

Originally published: September 23, 2021
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