Robin Soderling was at the height of his prowess when the walls began to crumble.
In 2009, when he was just 24, Soderling stunned four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal en route to the French Open final.
Soderling reached the final again in 2010, losing to Nadal. At the end of the season, Soderling was ranked No. 4 in the world.
Eight months later, he played his last match on the ATP Tour.
“I always felt like I was under pressure,” Soderling, now 37, said in a video call from his home near Stockholm. “The better I got, the worse it got. Basically, every game I played, I was the favourite. When I won, it was more relief than happiness. When I lost , it was a disaster. Losing a tennis match made me feel like a terrible person.
Expectations were high as soon as he had success as a junior. But by the age of 26, Soderling was over, having experienced anxiety and panic attacks as well as debilitating mononucleosis.
“My whole immune system was bad because of the mental stress I was putting on myself,” he said. “Even on my days off, I was never disconnected. Then my body flipped. I went from being able to play a five-set match on clay to not being able to climb stairs. But I couldn’t really walk. talk to a lot of people because there was such a big stigma.
Sports psychologists are now regularly present at the Women’s Tennis Association and the ATP Tours. And hardly anyone is afraid to talk about it. At last year’s WTA Finals, most of the top eight singles players spoke freely about receiving counseling for mental health issues.
“I’ve been working with a psychologist for years,” said Maria Sakkari, a 2021 French and US Open semi-finalist. I never made myself.”
Because tennis is an individual sport, most players are on their own with limited support networks. They travel for 11 months of the year and almost everyone loses regularly.
“Tennis is one of the toughest sports because there are constant changes that sports with a consistent schedule don’t have,” said top 30 player Danielle Collins. “You never know what time we are going to play. We travel from city to city every week on different continents, with different cultures, even different foods. We even play with different tennis balls. And we lose every week at unless you win the tournament. That’s something you have to adapt to.”
Last October, on World Mental Health Day, 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek announced that she would donate $50,000 in prize money to a mental health organization. She’s open about the value of having psychologist Daria Abramowicz as a member of her traveling team. Venus Williams has partnered with the WTA to donate $2 million to BetterHelp, an online therapy site, to provide a free service.
Sports psychology and mental well-being are not new concepts. Ivan Lendl hired the therapist Alexis Castorri in 1985 to help him after losing three consecutive US Open finals. He won the next three. But it’s only recently that players have been so open to seeking advice.
Mardy Fish, the former touring pro and captain of the USA Davis Cup team, opened the discussion when he said he had panic attacks before his fourth-round match against Roger Federer at the 2012 US Open. Fish withdrew from that match and then was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He highlighted his journey in a Netflix Documentary.
Naomi Osaka made headlines last May when she dropped out of the French Open, citing mental health issues. She lost in the third round at the US Open in September and has just resumed touring Australia this month.
Jim Loehr, a clinical psychologist, has been practicing since the 1970s and founded the Center for Athletic Excellence in Denver. He has seen the field evolve.
“Back then, people were very quiet about seeing someone who could help their game mentally,” said Loehr, who is also a co-founder of the Human Performance Institute. “And we couldn’t talk about it either because our work is confidential. Now everyone seems to have a sports psychologist.
“It makes perfect sense,” he said. “Athletes need a team around them to unleash extraordinary performances. A trainer is there for biomechanical expertise in stroke production. Then there are physical therapists and massage therapists to facilitate healing and there are trainers, nutritionists, sports psychologists, even spiritual counselors. The body is quite complicated and it works best when all the parts are integrated. The healthier and happier you are, the more you turn it on in the field.
The WTA and ATP have also taken note of the importance of wellness. The ATP has partnered with Sporting Chance, a British mental health organization. ATP players can call counselors and therapists 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We have a hand-in-hand collaboration that feels like an in-house service,” said former Tour player and ATP Tour director Ross Hutchins. “The goal is to make players more open to talking about their issues in a more comfortable way. They may not want to gossip about it like they would with physical injuries, but we want them to be able to feel like they do.
The WTA, which has provided mental health services for more than 20 years, recently launched a more aggressive approach by adding four mental health care providers, one of whom competes in tournaments year-round. Services include strategies for managing the mental and emotional challenges of match play, managing finances, and transitioning to life after tennis.
“Our job is to help athletes perform at their best off the court,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA Vice President for Mental Health and Wellness. “We don’t touch X’s and O’s. We’re part of holistic development. We are here to help you with the pebble in your shoe during a race. We say, ‘Let’s stop and get the rock out before it becomes a bigger problem.’
The major championships are also in the game. At the Australian Open, which begins on Monday, a psychiatrist and a sports psychologist are available to players. Health and wellness experts too. There are quiet rooms where players can relax and focus without distraction. There are even soundproof private pods in the player-only areas.
Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka says the tours are taking the right steps.
“I think the world is changing its perception of what mental health is,” she said. “We have this empathy when we see someone who is physically hurt. Mental health is something invisible. But it is as strong, as powerful as physical health.
Söderling doesn’t play much tennis anymore, except with his two children. After several attempts to come back, each time followed by another panic attack, he stopped. He now owns RS Sports, a sportswear company, and is captain of Sweden’s Davis Cup team. He considers himself cured and will help anyone who asks.
“As an athlete, we get the best medical care you could get if you have a knee or wrist injury,” Soderling said. “But it took a long time to work with the mental aspect. It’s a shame it’s called sanity because it wasn’t just in my head. My whole body was affected.
“I am happy to see that there is a better understanding of mental health today,” he added. “But it’s sad that it had to happen to so many people before it was taken seriously.”