Naomi Osaka, one of the world’s greatest tennis players, should give herself permission to step away from the court.
Each time she returned to the sport, she was saddled with even more attention as a champion for athletes’ mental health and even more sponsorships as a global brand ambassador. You always have to come back when you’re the leader of a movement or the front-facing CEO of a sports empire. Tennis doesn’t just stop for a four-time Grand Slam champion who leaped to the front of the pack among the highest-paid female athletes, with more than $55 million in off-court earnings last year.
But while Osaka Inc. is thriving, Naomi, the woman, is hurting. Tennis doesn’t seem to be helping. And she doesn’t owe it to anyone to keep trying — not her sponsors, not her fans and not the game.
On Saturday, Osaka, 24, was visibly shaken four minutes into her match at the BNP Paribas Open when a woman shouted, “Naomi, you suck!” Osaka had just been broken by her opponent, Veronika Kudermetova, but the heckle — an unimaginative snort but a common one — seemed to break her.
It’s hard to imagine this particular taunt having such an impact on another superstar athlete of her caliber. But Osaka, ferocious competitor that she may be on the court, has lived a sheltered and shy life off it. She and her sister, Mari, started practicing and playing at age 3. They were home-schooled and trained eight hours per day, and their worlds consisted of each other and their Japanese mother and Haitian father, who raised them to be tennis champions. In her Netflix docuseries, three episodes of melancholy, Osaka hints at a lonely upbringing.
“Growing up we kind of kept to ourselves. … No one really knows all the sacrifices that you make just to be good,” she says.
Osaka, so soft-spoken that her words sometimes crawl out in a pained whisper, apologizes when there’s nothing to be sorry for and gushes out thank-yous as though they’re punctuating the end of her sentences. She’s so polite that she probably wouldn’t even scream “You suck!” at a vacuum, let alone another human being.
Yet someone else said it to her, and instead of brushing it off, Osaka wanted the umpire’s microphone to address the crowd. That showed a certain kind of mental toughness — she had the willingness to confront the heckler and protect herself. But maybe the bravest thing Osaka can do now is save herself by exiting the spotlight.
Anyone tempted to recycle the hackneyed conclusion that athletes who face real-life crises will find their peace on the playing field hasn’t been paying much attention lately. Simone Biles stepped away from the greatest stage of her sport, the Olympics, when her mind and body, tormented by memories of the sexual abuse she and her teammates suffered, would not align for her to perform aerial twists. Recently, Ohio State lineman Harry Miller said he was “medically retiring” from football — but only after playing a few games last season in which he wore the scars on his wrists left by self-inflicted wounds from a box cutter.
These athletes who walked away prioritized their mental health and themselves. A healing balm isn’t always found in suppressing emotional turmoil through physical acts of strength.
Osaka, of course, has already spent time away and has shown some growth. We’ve heard it in her honesty, in how she has worked to overcome extreme shyness, to search for gratitude in the everyday and value herself as more than a commodity on the tennis court.
Her post-match news conferences sound like therapy sessions. After her first tournament following the initial coronavirus outbreak in 2020, Osaka said she spent some of the shutdown learning to talk to different people. (But it’s telling that Osaka built up the stamina to be more outgoing at a time when there was less human interaction and faces were hidden behind masks.)
Then last week, after her first-round win in Indian Wells, Calif., when she could’ve been frustrated by the conditions, she instead found humor in the gusting winds and thanked fans for staying and watching in the cold. During that same interview session, Osaka didn’t hesitate to admit that in the past she had linked her self-worth to her success.
“I can’t be bold enough to say I completely changed that mind-set,” she said. “Of course I feel like I’m the type of person that wants to be of value. It feels better if people think you’re — not think you’re important — but like if I’m valuable to someone’s life, I feel like they treat me better or something like that, you know?”
Maybe, when the taunt stabbed through the silence, Osaka felt worthless when all she was trying to do was entertain and compete. She said the jeer started to replay in her mind an endless loop of the disgraceful treatment that Venus and Serena Williams received at the same tournament in 2001. Then, their father, Richard, said the boos and taunts were racially motivated.
Who can tell what’s in the heart of a hater? Maybe this woman paid actual U.S. dollars to attend a tennis tournament just to harass Osaka because of her skin color. But maybe it’s not that simple, and neither is Osaka’s journey to wholeness.
Growth isn’t tidy, nor is it linear. Osaka doesn’t step away from the tennis court for four months and then emerge whole and healed. That’s how it works in fiction or in those simplistic features we in the sports media write when an athlete returns from an offseason with bigger biceps and a clearer mind. We tend to celebrate transformations as though they happen on a schedule, to describe someone’s problems in the past tense.
But real growth inches forward. It is continuous and uncomfortable, as is happening with Osaka.
The purpose of this column is not to play keyboard psychologist, and maybe Osaka prefers to live her emotions out loud. In her docuseries, she advises young star Coco Gauff that if she needs to cry she should do so in front of U.S. Open spectators instead of alone in the shower. Even as detractors growl about her being a soft millennial and supporters want to embrace her, Osaka continues to pour herself out in public settings, no matter how messy.
But as a teaser to the third episode of her docuseries, Osaka says: “Honestly, tennis is not necessary for anything. … I love doing it, but there’s more important things in the world. I think about, what would happen if the world stopped? What would happen if tennis stopped?”
After years of dealing with internal pressure to be great, to stand as the symbol of mental health and to build her brand, Osaka should consider not just thinking about what would happen if tennis stopped but actually finding out — before the game breaks her completely.
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