Naomi Osaka’s journey to the top took another unexpected turn on Friday when the Japanese tennis star announced she would be taking an indefinite break from the sport following her shock US Open exit.
The 23-year-old, who won the New York title in 2018 and 2020 and is considered the best hard court player in the world by some distance, made the announcement after losing in three sets to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez at the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while,” Osaka said at a tearful post-match press conference. “This is very hard to articulate. Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. Sorry.”
Osaka later said she felt emotionally conflicted whether she won or lost. “I feel like for me, recently, when I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then, when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal. I didn’t really want to cry.”
But she said she didn’t feel that the occasion or her opponent was the issue, noting that she’d been able to return better players’ serves and had played “in this situation before”.
“I guess we’re all dealing with some stuff, but I know that I’m dealing with some stuff,” Osaka added.
Her withdrawal from the sport was a surprise finale to her first grand slam on the tennis circuit after withdrawing from the French Open and Wimbledon due to mental health issues.
The effect of those decisions could be seen in her form at the Tokyo Olympics. Asked whether pressure was a part of it, she said: “Yes and no.”
Entering Friday’s match, two days after the city was slammed by Hurricane Ida, Osaka had won 16 straight Grand Slam matches. But her game declined when things started to go Fernandez’s way on the court. Three times she slammed her racket down and walked off the court with a towel over her head without telling the umpire after losing a tie-break. Overall, she tallied 36 unforced errors on the night.
Osaka’s decision to step back from the game is bound to raise further questions over psychological pressures young athletes are facing, and the corresponding effect on mental health and performance in a year when “the 24-hour rolling hell of Big Sport” has itself been repeatedly interrupted and restarted, sometimes with and sometimes without the energy of spectators.
In July, US gymnastics superstar Simone Biles pulled out of some Tokyo Olympics gymnastics events, later saying that she had decided to prioritise her mind over the will – and enormous pressure – to win. “There is more to life than just gymnastics,” she said, returning to win bronze on the beam. Biles said she was inspired by Osaka, who had said she withdrew from this year’s French Open to ease her anxiety and depression.
Competitors in other sports have made similar decisions, among them cricketer Ben Stokes who stepped back from the game to prioritise his mental wellbeing. Aston Villa centre-back Tyrone Mings, who described his anxiety before Euro 2020, said he’d sought psychological techniques “to stop letting your subconscious take over”.
Studies on the pressure to perform has divided cognitive psychologists over the merits of what they term “mindfulness” – in a sense, intense mental concentration – and its opposite, to be mindless.
A study in Scientific American last week described a state of “automaticity”, or mental processes that can be executed without paying attention to them.
In some instances, authors said, “paying too much attention to what you’re doing can have damaging effects, particularly when you perform well-practised skills”. The message from research, they concluded, “is that focusing too carefully on the execution of well-practised motor sequences can cause mistakes”.
But as the mental health challenges of athletic performance at the highest level becomes more apparent, Osaka’s comments on Friday offered still more insight. Referring to throwing her racket on the court, she said: “I’m really sorry about that. I’m not really sure why. I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point.
“Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now.
“You could kind of see that,” she added. “I was kind of like a little kid.”