WIMBLEDON, England — Naomi Osaka isn’t the first professional tennis player to withdraw from a Grand Slam event due to mental health issues, and she won’t be the last either. Others, though, may not always be as forthright as Osaka.
“I’m sure there are a lot of individuals that are struggling. More than we know” claimed Mardy Fish, the captain of the United States Davis Cup team, who had to withdraw from the 2012 US Open due to a panic attack just before his match against Roger Federer. “Whether you know it or not, there have been a lot of athletes who have had mental health difficulties. Over the last eight or nine years, I’ve spoken to a lot of players you’ve heard of — some up-and-coming players, some collegiate players, male and female — who have suffered from similar issues. It’s common in sports, and it’s especially common in such a unique sport.”
Current and past players indicated they believe their sport is particularly prone to difficulties like stress, anxiety, and depression in video or phone interviews during Wimbledon, which concludes Sunday, and the French Open, which ended in June.
After all, it’s a mostly alone sport with a nomadic lifestyle, no fixed pay, and continuous thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down (typically the latter) judgements based on results and rankings.
There are no teammates to lean on for support. There are no “load management” days off. In most competitions, players are unable to get in-game coaching.
“If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, if you don’t feel well, there’s no way to say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to play this game today,’” said Fish, who rose to No. 7 in the rankings, reached three Slam quarterfinals, and won an Olympic silver medal. “And you have to do it all on your own.”
Because of the epidemic, it’s been intensified recently.
“It isn’t always prioritised. It’s sometimes the last thing on your mind. However, in tennis, the mentality is extremely essential… We travel so often and are alone, so it can really take a toll on you mentally,” said Jennifer Brady, a 26-year-old from Pennsylvania who finished second to Osaka at the Australian Open in February and is a member of the United States squad for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I keep a lot of things to myself, and it may build up into a large snowball over time. And then you just sort of erupting at one point, and you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ ‘Where did you get that?’ But it’s really just a build-up of everything,” Brady, who works with a sports psychologist, explained. “Everyone has a breaking point,” says the narrator.
Osaka drew attention to the issue in late May when she dropped out of the French Open before the second round, citing “massive waves of anxiety” and “extended episodes of melancholy” before speaking to the media. She took a mental health vacation and missed Wimbledon; her return is set for the Olympics, which will begin in two weeks with zero spectators due to Japan’s state of emergency.
Osaka, 23, has four Grand Slam championships, is rated No. 1 in the globe, and is the highest-paid female athlete in the world.
“We can adopt safeguards to protect athletes, especially the vulnerable ones,” she said in a Time magazine column, adding, “Each of us, as humans, is going through something on some level.”
Hers isn’t a unique case, and this type of behaviour isn’t restricted to tennis. Olympians Michael Phelps and Gracie Gold, NFL quarterback Dak Prescott, NBA forward Kevin Love, and NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace have all spoken out about their own personal experiences.
Becky Ahlgren Bedics, vice president of mental health and wellbeing for the WTA, the women’s tennis tour, stated, “We’ve been talking about this forever.” “Any time an athlete shares their experience with us, or with the world, we may learn something from it, especially if we pay attention. And we are surely paying attention.”
The WTA offers an on-site therapist at Wimbledon and other events, allowing players to arrange 30- or 60-minute consultations. Video or phone chats are also available at any time, on any day.
The WTA’s comprehensive wellness programme began in the 1990s and focuses on prevention, education, and service awareness.
“Our athletes use them extensively — even across rankings,” Ahlgren Bedics added. “Which of the following is most likely to utilise it? We have competitors who are new to the tour as well as those who have competed before and are considered veterans.”
(The ATP men’s circuit established a relationship with a business that provides access to therapists last year.) When asked if the ATP had similar support systems when he was playing, Fish said, “No.” There weren’t any.
Some athletes bring their own mental coach with them on the road. Others converse with one on a regular or irregular basis.
Others say they prefer to speak with someone they know well, such as a coach or personal trainer.
“Since my father’s death, I’ve struggled with anxiety to the point where I couldn’t leave the house. I’d be in the middle of a match, and things would be spiralling out of control. My mother and others begged me to get assistance. I, on the other hand, was the guy who said, “Eh, whatever.” It’s all right. Yada yada yada.’ But I received help,” said Steve Johnson, a 31-year-old Californian who won the NCAA singles title for USC in 2011-12 and is currently ranked 21st. “I see a therapist on a regular basis. It’s not a sign of weakness. Unless you inquire, you have no idea what someone is going through.”
Concerns arise in all walks of life, whether they are personal or professional.
It’s why Iga Swiatek, last year’s French Open winner, travels with a sports psychologist. Barbora Krejcikova, the winner of the French Open this year, required her psychologist to coax her out of a panic episode that made her scared to leave the locker room.
“There is a great deal of stress. When I was ranked No. 20 in the world, I felt it. When I fractured my ankle and returned, I had (ranking) points to defend, and people expected me to have the same results as before, which I didn’t,” Mihaela Buzarnescu, a 33-year-old Romanian player with a PhD, said. “I was in a bad mood. When… my rating jumped from 55 to 135 in a week, I couldn’t leave the hotel room for a couple of days.”
The absence of crowds — they were prohibited at last year’s U.S. Open; Wimbledon only permitted full capacity on several courts in Week 2 — and limits on players’ mobility have made the epidemic particularly difficult, according to Buzarnescu.
Jamie Murray, 35, of Scotland, has won five Grand Slam championships in men’s or mixed doubles and is the older brother of three-time major champion Andy Murray.
“Basically, we’ve just gone from bubble to bubble all around the planet. Tennis, on the other hand, is unavoidable. You play a match, and if you lose (it’s always tougher when you lose), you return to the hotel. Small hotel room, four walls. Because you can’t open your windows, you don’t always get enough fresh air. And you’re simply sitting there doing nothing. Murray remarked, his palm in front of his face, “And the match is just here, like this.” “And it keeps playing over and over in your head. And there’s no getting away from it. There is no way out. You are unable to dine with your pals.”
Instead of being able to rent individual residences to stay with family or friends during Wimbledon, all players remained in one hotel. Players from the United Kingdom were unable to stay at home. Except for transit to the event venue, no one is allowed to leave the hotel.
Players in Paris were given one hour of free time each day. In February, players at the Australian Open were prohibited from leaving their hotel rooms for two weeks if someone on their trip tested positive for COVID-19.
“Everyone’s life is at a crossroads right now. “You can’t figure in how much this bubble stuff weighs on each person,” said Reilly Opelka, the highest-ranked American male at 23 years old. “It may grow gloomy and frightening when you’re in a foul mood. It is, in fact. It’s terrifying.”