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Naomi Osaka’s return to tennis is an open question; her impact on mental-health awareness is clear

A tearful Naomi Osaka said she does not know when she will play competitive tennis again after a Sept. 3, third round loss at the U.S. Open. (Video: Reuters)
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NEW YORK — When Naomi Osaka returned to Grand Slam competition Monday at the U.S. Open after a two-month mental health break, she acknowledged that her game might be a bit rusty. But she said she was happy to be back, buoyed by a new mind-set based on being kinder to herself.

But Friday night, when her mighty forehand failed her at a critical juncture in her third-round match, one error led to a rash of mistakes that quickly devolved into what she likened to a childlike display in which she bashed and flung her racket because things weren’t going her way.

Osaka didn’t balk at doing her obligatory post-match interview, as might have been expected given the anxiety she has said such encounters cause her. Even as the moderator sought to halt the proceedings as her tears fell, Osaka said she wanted to complete her answers.

“I feel like for me recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy; I feel more like a relief,” she said. “And then when I lose, I feel very sad.”

After U.S. Open loss, a tearful Naomi Osaka considers taking a break from tennis

It was a heart-rending acknowledgment from a 23-year-old athlete who has trained since childhood to perfect her skills, reached No. 1 in the world at 21 and was the most accomplished woman in the U.S. Open field with four Grand Slam titles.

The sequence that unfolded on Arthur Ashe Stadium moments before, as Osaka lost her way, then lost all composure before a live broadcast audience, was equally heart-rending.

And it underscored the difficult reality that overcoming extreme anxiety and the weight of perfectionism, which Osaka has said she struggles with, is often a process rather than a problem that can be remedied by a visit to a specialist, a new mind-set or even an extended hiatus.

It also highlighted the underlying harshness amid the beauty of sports. Whether on Arthur Ashe Stadium, a World Cup pitch or a Super Bowl arena, new champions are born and celebrated often before the vanquished have left the field of play.

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And so it was Friday in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where a raucous crowd of roughly 20,000 stood and cheered the 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 victory of 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada while Osaka trudged off, earphones muffling the din.

The same ritual played out in the match prior, as ticket holders, U.S. Open officials and ESPN broadcasters hailed the emergence of 18-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain while 23-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas was jeered off the court.

Osaka concluded her post-match interview by disclosing what she had discussed with her agent in the hallway moments earlier: that she planned to take a break from competing.

Former world tennis champion Billie Jean King says Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have been courageous in speaking up about their mental health. It’s great how female athletes do step up and use our platforms really well. I think we’re very courageous in that way.” (Video: Washington Post Live)

“I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” she said.

On Saturday, that question remained unanswered.

Though the U.S. Open is the season’s final major, Osaka had planned to enter the pandemic-postponed BNP Paribas event in Indian Wells, Calif., a prestigious two-week tournament for men and women that starts Oct. 8.

Osaka’s agent, Stuart Duguid, did not respond to a request for comment about whether that remains in her plans.

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Meanwhile, former champion Billie Jean King reached out to Osaka via social media to explain that it mattered not when she returned to tennis. “Take all the time you need to recover, rest, and heal, @naomiosaka. Sending you love and support,” she posted.

Former pro James Blake said much the same, posting on Twitter: “Please do what is best for you @naomiosaka We want to see your extraordinary tennis again, but more importantly, we want to see you happy.”

Osaka has done more than any tennis pro to bring the issue of athletes’ mental health into the open. For that, she has received accolades from health-care professionals, thanks from athletes across sports and a mixed reaction from fans — some applaud her bravery; others mock her as weak or entitled.

U.S. Open officials ramped up services designed to help athletes with mental health issues during the tournament this year, including access to licensed mental health providers and the use of “quiet rooms.”

The Women’s Tennis Association has provided a staff dedicated to athletes’ mental health for more than 20 years. It assigns a consistent mental health provider to all Grand Slam events and its major tournaments around the world.

Tennis players can schedule confidential 30- or 60-minute sessions during events or take advantage of “telehealth” sessions between tournaments.

The WTA won’t comment on the number or percentage of athletes who use the services or on any individual consults. But Becky Ahlgren Bedics, the WTA’s vice president of mental health and wellness, spoke in general terms Saturday about the issue of perfectionism that can be both a strength and challenge for tennis pros.

“Like any strength, when overused, it can become a challenge,” Ahlgren Bedics said.

In managing the drive to be perfect, or handling anxiety, stress or any other mental health challenge, Ahlgren Bedics said that self-awareness is fundamental — especially, she added, for today’s athletes who have so much “external input” about who they are.

“They just have to look between their thumbs, and they will get everyone’s opinion on what they look like, how they perform, who they are as a person, what their morals and values might be through the interpretation of anonymous folks online,” Ahlgren Bedics said. “We really try to work with athletes to develop that self-awareness so they can tune into their values and their decision-making, so they are doing it for themselves rather than just listening to every external input that is out there.”

Like any new skill — whether a new serve or backhand volley — self-awareness takes time to master, she said. Taking a break can be a constructive step.

“I can’t tell you there is a checklist of markers: ‘If these four things are happening, then you need to leave,’ ” Ahlgren Bedics said. “But it’s an option. And every athlete [should] know that a bend in the road is not the end of the road. You just need to make the turn — to listen to yourself.”

From any vantage point, it was difficult to watch Osaka, a two-time U.S. Open champion who was defending her title here, become emotionally unmoored Friday — bashing her racket in frustration and blasting a ball into the stands, which finally drew the official warning that the chair umpire had resisted giving.

When Osaka finally walked off the court, she held up her right hand with two fingers extended in a peace sign as the crowd cheered the sport’s new teenage sensation.

Without a word, Osaka wished them all peace as she walked off in search of her own.

Read more:

How a 12-year-old Billie Jean King decided to change the world

Serena Williams doesn’t need another Grand Slam. She has nothing left to prove.

How does it feel to lose at the Olympics? Elite athletes describe the heartache.