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Naomi Osaka's health issue highlights solitary life of tennis players

Glitzy image of Grand Slam belies underlying difficulties for young athletes

Naomi Osaka during the first round of the French Open women's singles tennis tournament.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's Naomi Osaka has publicly disclosed she will withdraw from the French Open, one of the four Grand Slam tennis tournaments, and confessed she has long suffered from depression.

A major issue for women's tennis is teenage players often rising rapidly to stardom but then burning out quickly. The Women's Tennis Association has taken measures to address this issue.

"It's incredibly brave that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression," Billie Jean King, a WTA co-founder who has given Osaka advice on occasion, wrote on Twitter in response to Osaka's announcement. "Right now, the important thing is that we give her the space and time she needs."

Regarding her outlook, Osaka tweeted: "I'm gonna take some time away from the court now, but when the time is right I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans. Anyways hope you are doing well and staying safe, love you guys I'll see you when I see you."

Those such as King who are sympathetic to her may also express their support, but the fact remains that news conferences, which Osaka has said she finds very stressful, are an important element for the tournaments. A solution might not be that easy to come by.

Osaka's honest and witty style at news conferences has proved popular. But news conferences are a trying place where players may face tough questions. The Belarusian player Victoria Azarenka, who Osaka beat in the final match of last year's U.S. Open, for example, faced questions about the political situation in her home country.

Since commenting about the Black Lives Matter movement, Osaka has increasingly been asked questions relating to race and gender equality, which, if she gave an answer that even some disagreed with, could put her under fire. Though she normally appeared to field questions well, it seems she was in fact suffering great stress behind the scenes.

The organizers of the Grand Slam tournaments, in a joint statement announcing their actions against Osaka after her refusal to attend news conferences, said, "The mental health of players competing in our tournaments and on the Tours is of the utmost importance to the Grand Slams", adding that it had paid significant effort to help support them.

Mental health issues are a major problem in tennis. The players travel around the world for 10 months of the year, and since it is an individual sport, they cannot talk to anyone during matches. The shock of defeat falls on one person.

Tennis superstars attract attention each time they arrive at a new tour location and are asked similar questions again and again. By contrast, players in the lower ranks have other difficulties, such as how to pay for the costs of participating in the tours. There have also been rumors of match-fixing. Contrary to its glitzy image, the world of tennis is severe and lonely.

Ai Sugiyama, a retired Japanese professional tennis player, who, while she was a professional, participated in the tours with her mother serving as her coach, once said of her mother's presence: "It's significant that I have someone who never ceases to be on my side." Some players find mental support by taking their partners or spouses on tour.

Female tennis players tend to rise to fame at an early age, and the issue of over-interference by parents has also been flagged as a concern. Jennifer Capriati of the U.S., who made her professional debut when she was in her low teens, won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 at the age of 16. However, she subsequently left the tours and has had brushes with the law, including for shoplifting and possession of marijuana. It has been suggested that her father's strict discipline was partly to blame.

In 1994, the WTA set a new rule called the age eligibility rule for participants in the tours and introduced, for those aged up to 18, limits on the number of tournaments a player in a specific age group is allowed to play. It has also introduced a mentor system and training programs for players, providing guidance on how to participate in the tours and respond to the media.

Such efforts paid off. Capriati made a successful professional comeback, with three victories in the Grand Slam tournaments. More recently, Australia's Ashleigh Barty, currently the world's top-ranking female tennis player, left the tours for a period of two years in her teens. After playing in her local cricket team, she returned to the tours and became a French Open champion in 2019.

"I feel like I wish I could give her a hug because I know what it's like," said Serena Williams, the multiple Grand Slam winner, after she learned about Osaka's withdrawal from the French Open. "We have different personalities, and people are different."

"You just have to let her handle it the way she wants to, in the best way she thinks she can, and that's the only thing I can say," she said. "I think she's doing the best that she can."

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