Fewer than seven months in the past, Naomi Osaka held a Grand Slam trophy for the fourth time in her profession. At a mere 23 years outdated, Osaka had crossed a threshold in Australia — she wasn’t simply the highest ladies’s tennis participant on this planet however on a path towards turning into top-of-the-line of all time.
On Friday, she walked off the court docket at Arthur Ashe Stadium nonetheless a 23-year-old with 4 Grand Slams however in a a lot totally different context — looking for the suitable phrases by means of the tears, struggling to grasp what she needs her goal to be and clearly at a crossroads with the game that has introduced her worldwide fame and wealth past comprehension.
Osaka, the No. 3 seed and defending U.S. Open champion, suffered a stunning defeat within the third spherical Friday night time to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, the 73rd-ranked participant on this planet. However the greater information got here after the ultimate ball was hit in Fernandez’s 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 win when Osaka said she needed a break from tennis and didn’t know when she can be again on the court docket.
Given every thing that has transpired since Osaka’s Australian Open title, we will’t rule out the likelihood the reply is rarely.
“For me, lately, once I win I don’t really feel completely happy. I really feel extra like a aid,” Osaka mentioned, answering a query on the finish of her information convention that was requested in Japanese. “After which once I lose I really feel very unhappy and I don’t suppose that’s regular. I didn’t actually wish to cry however mainly I really feel like…”
As her voice trailed off into an extended pause, the moderator tried to finish the press convention, however Osaka wouldn’t enable it.
“I form of wish to end this,” she mentioned earlier than taking a deep breath. “So mainly I really feel like … that is very exhausting to articulate. So mainly I really feel like I’m form of at this level the place I am making an attempt to determine what I wish to do and actually I don’t know once I’m going to play my subsequent tennis match.”
And with that, Osaka flashed two thumbs up and walked away from this U.S. Open. Whether or not she’s strolling away from tennis solely will now loom over the game till we hear from her once more.
Nevertheless it’s very clear, even with no full understanding of the despair and psychological well being points Osaka has struggled with during the last couple years, that what occurred in 2021 can’t proceed.
If tennis is the reason for her issues, she ought to stroll away and do no matter she needs to do. But when tennis is a part of the answer, then she must be a full-time participant. Making an attempt to stroll a line between the 2 appears to solely trigger her ache.
To look at Osaka’s information convention Friday night time was a glimpse into difficulties she has been coping with. It was uncomfortable. It was additionally illuminating. At one level, when requested about smashing her racket and customarily wanting annoyed and impatient after she did not put away the match within the second set, Osaka mentioned she used to take pleasure in getting challenged on the court docket however these days had been anxious when issues didn’t go her method.
In that second — earlier than she broke down and introduced she was taking a break from tennis — the thought occurred to me that maybe the reply to a number of her points on the court docket was merely enjoying extra.
The fact of the game that has extracted a lot of Osaka’s expertise in just a few brief years is that it’s too demanding to be performed on the highest degree as a part-time gig.
After the Australian Open win, Osaka was very up-front about her intentions to play fewer tournaments all year long and concentrate on the Grand Slams and a small variety of different large occasions. That’s a formulation nice gamers have usually tried on the finish of their careers to protect their our bodies, not of their early- and mid-20s after they’re making an attempt to get essentially the most out of their bodily prime.
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After Osaka misplaced 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 till the Olympics whereas her opponents have been grinding out tournaments throughout Europe. With so little tennis beneath her belt this yr, it’s not an enormous shock that she struggled to place collectively successful performances beneath stress.
Past no matter different psychological well being points she offers with, Osaka has to come back to grips with the concept shedding isn’t simply acceptable, it’s completely regular.
Ash Barty, who has taken over the No. 1 rating this yr, is placing collectively maybe the most effective season by a ladies’s tennis participant since Serena Williams at her peak successful Wimbledon and 4 different titles. She’s additionally misplaced seven instances this yr and had actually unhealthy days. The story of Roger Federer isn’t merely his 20 Grand Slam singles titles, it’s the 11 instances he’s misplaced in a remaining, together with some absolute heartbreakers. In tennis, that’s what makes you human.
Whether or not Osaka’s despair and discomfort with the highlight can ever be suitable with skilled tennis is one thing solely she will reply. Given her immense expertise, let’s hope so.
However even when she by no means picks up a racket once more, she’s already secured her spot in a fairly choose group of Grand Slam-winning ladies. She owes us completely nothing. If her final resolution is to maneuver on to one thing else, we will solely admire what she achieved and hope there’s one thing else that offers her happiness.
It was clear within the aftermath Friday night time that Osaka wants to spend so much of time within the subsequent weeks and months deciding what she needs her life to be. But when shedding a tennis match seems to be the low level of this journey, she’ll finally determine one of the simplest ways to make the remainder of it work simply fantastic.
This text initially appeared on USA TODAY: Naomi Osaka: What does future hold for tennis star after US Open?