Tennis players discuss mental health issues raised by Osaka



WIMBLEDON, England (AP) – Naomi Osaka was not the first professional tennis player to step down at a Grand Slam tournament due to mental health issues – and she likely won’t be the last. Others may not always be as blunt as Osaka used to be.

“I’m sure there are quite a few people struggling. More than we know, ”said United States Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish, who retired from the 2012 US Open when he suffered a panic attack before he was supposed to face Roger Federer. “There have been a lot of players who have had mental health issues whether you know it or not. I’ve spoken to many players over the past eight or nine years that you’ve heard of – some promising players; some university players; men and women – who have struggled with this stuff. It is prevalent in sport and certainly prevalent in such an individual sport. ”

In video or phone interviews during Wimbledon, which ends Sunday, and the French Open, which ended in June, current and former players said they believe their sport could be particularly prone to problems. such as stress, anxiety and depression.

It is, after all, primarily a solo sport with a traveling lifestyle, no guaranteed pay, and constant judgments (usually the latter for most players) based on results and rankings.

There are no teammates to rely on. There are no days off for “load management”. Players can’t even get in-match coaching in most tournaments.

“If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, if you’re not feeling well, there’s no ‘Hey I’m not gonna play this game today’,” said Fish, who reached number 7 in the standings, made three quarterfinals of the Slam and won an Olympic silver medal. “And you have to go through it all on your own. “

It has grown in recent times because of the pandemic.

“Sometimes it’s not a priority. Sometimes it’s the last thing on your mind. But especially in tennis, the mind is so important. … We travel so much and we are alone so it can really hurt you mentally, ”said Jennifer Brady, a 26-year-old Pennsylvania who finished second in Osaka at the Australian Open in February and is part of the squad. American for the Tokyo Games.

“I keep a lot of things to myself, and over time it can just create a big snowball. And then at some point you kind of explode, and you’re like, ‘Whoa. Where did that come from? ‘ But in reality, it’s just an accumulation of everything, ”said Brady, who uses a sports psychologist. “And there is always a breaking point for everyone.”

Osaka drew attention to the subject at the end of May, when she withdrew from Roland Garros ahead of the second round, saying she had “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and that she had “suffered from long periods of depression”. She took a sanity break and sat down at Wimbledon; his return is slated for the Olympics, which are slated to start in two weeks with zero fans amid a state of emergency in Japan.

Osaka, 23, has won four Grand Slam titles, was ranked No.1 and is the highest paid female athlete in the world.

In an essay for Time magazine, she wrote that she hoped “that we can adopt measures to protect athletes, especially the most fragile”, and said: “Each of us, as human beings, is going through something at some level. “

Hers isn’t an isolated example, and that sort of thing isn’t limited to tennis, of course. Athletes from various sports discussed their own experiences, including Olympians Michael Phelps and Gracie Gold, Dak Prescott of the NFL, Kevin Love of the NBA and Bubba Wallace of NASCAR.

“We’ve been talking about it forever,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, vice president of mental health and wellness for the WTA, the women’s tennis tour. “Every time an athlete shares with us, or shares with the world, their experience, we can learn something from it, especially if we listen. And we are certainly listening.

At Wimbledon and most tournaments, the WTA provides an on-site clinician so players can request 30- or 60-minute sessions. Also available any day, anytime: video or phone conversations.

The WTA Comprehensive Wellness Program began in the 1990s with a focus on prevention, education, and service awareness.

“They are used a lot by our athletes – even across all rankings,” said Ahlgren Bedics. “Who is most likely to use it? We have athletes who have just been on the tour, as well as others who have been on the tour and who are more of our veterans. “

(The ATP men’s tour last year announced a partnership with a company that provides access to therapists. Fish’s response when asked if ATP has such support systems when he is played: “No. There wasn’t.”)

Some players travel with their own mental coach. Others speak regularly or occasionally with one of them.

Still others say they are looking for a conversation with someone they know well, such as a coach or personal trainer.

“I am someone who has suffered from anxiety since my father passed away, to the point where I cannot leave my house. I would play games and everything would get out of hand. … My mother and the people around me begged me for help. But I was the guy who said, ‘Hey, whatever. It’s just fine. Yada yada yada. ‘ But I got help, ”said Steve Johnson, a 31-year-old Californian, 2011-12 NCAA singles champion for USC and ranked 21st. “I talk to a therapist quite often. It is not weakness. You have no idea what someone is going through unless you ask them.

Whether the concerns are personal or professional, they exist, as in any living environment.

That’s why last year’s Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek is traveling with a sports psychologist. That’s why this year’s Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova needed her psychologist to dissuade her from a panic attack that left her scared to leave the locker room.

“There is a lot of pressure. I felt it when I was number 20 in the world. I felt it when I broke my ankle and came back and had points (ranked) to defend and people expected me to get the same results as before and I didn’t. ‘was not,’ said Mihaela Buzarnescu, a 33-year-old player from Romania who has a doctorate. “I was depressed. When … my ranking went down in a week from 55 to 135, I couldn’t get out of the hotel room for a few days.

Buzarnescu said the pandemic has been particularly difficult due to the lack of fans – they were banned from last year’s US Open; Wimbledon only allowed full capacity of some courts during week 2 – and restrictions on player movement.

Jamie Murray, a 35-year-old Scotsman with five Grand Slam titles in men’s or mixed doubles and older brother of three-time major champion Andy, says he is wearing it.

“We’ve basically gone from bubble to bubble to bubble, all over the world. And there is no escaping tennis. You play a game, let’s say you lose – it’s all the more difficult when you lose – you go back to the hotel. Small hotel room, four walls. Sometimes you don’t have fresh air because you can’t open your windows. And you’re just setting there. And the game is right there, like that, ”Murray said, his hand in front of his face. “And it plays out over and over in your mind. And you can’t do without it. There is no escape. You can’t go out to dinner with your friends.

During Wimbledon, all players stayed in one hotel, instead of being able to rent private homes to stay with family or friends. British players could not stay at home. No one can leave the hotel, except to go to the tournament site.

“It has been difficult for them over the past year to function in these environments,” said All England Club general manager Sally Bolton.

In Paris, players were entitled to one hour of free time per day. At the Australian Open in February, players could not leave their hotel rooms at all for two weeks if someone on their flight tested positive for COVID-19.

“It is a fragile period in everyone’s life. This bubble stuff – you can’t take into account how much it weighs on each person, ”said Reilly Opelka, a 23-year-old who is the top ranked American man. “When you’re in a bad state of mind it can get dark and it’s scary. It really is. It’s scary.”


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