Can Naomi Osaka rediscover purpose in tennis? ‘She’s going to have to find her own reason’

Alex Coffey
| Special to USA TODAY

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NEW YORK — Before the beginning of what could be the last time we see her on a tennis court for awhile, Naomi Osaka told us she plays better with a purpose.

Tennis is a grueling sport that requires a demanding year-long training and tournament schedule. Osaka has endured it for fame, money, on-court praises or a combination of both. Osaka has many of these things.

Last season, her message was clear. She walked onto Arthur Ashe Stadium seven times with seven different masks, each one featuring the name of a different victim of racial injustice, and she never lost a match. In 2021, it’s not as clear.

” “I don’t have that big a message to send at all,” she stated in a pre-tournament conference. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what drives me.”

That quote seems prescient now. On Friday night, after going down 0-5 in a tiebreaker, Osaka slammed her racket and screamed into the September air. Her body language, at times, seemed dejected, as if defeat to her opponent, 18-year-old qualifier Leylah Fernandez, was inevitable. It was un-Osaka-like. This was the young woman who upset Serena Williams at age 20, on these same court. Her game was powerful in every aspect: her serve, her serve and her forehand. She also exuded aggression from the baseline. She looked defeated on Friday.

After falling to Fernandez, Osaka explained why. She doesn’t feel joy when she wins but relief. She feels sad when she loses. She pulled her visor down and said that she didn’t know when her next match would be. Although Osaka’s words are striking, we have heard them before. In 2012, Andre Agassi described that same emotion – relief – when he won his first and only Wimbledon title in 1992.

“For me,” he said to The New York Times, “winning Wimbledon didn’t seem to last nearly as long as losing did.”

In the early 2000s, Mats Wilander told journalist Paul Fein that after he’d finally reached No. 1 in 1988, he didn’t feel anything.

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“All my career I had dreamed of being No. 1. He said that he felt nothing when he finally did it. I didn’t feel any elation or pride. But I was the world champion, but that didn’t matter. It got to the stage where I got more satisfaction cutting the grass than playing tennis.”

Agassi won the U.S. Open in 1994 and the Australian Open in 1995, but in 1997, saw his life fall into personal turmoil. He began to use drugs during this period. His ranking dropped to No. 141. His ranking started to decline steadily after Wilander achieved the goal he had long aspired to. He won one more Grand Slam title in 1989 (Wimbledon) but had dropped to No. 159 by 1991, and retired in 1996, unable to return to his former dominance. It begs the question: Is it possible to play tennis at the highest level when you are unhappy? It is possible to play tennis without having a reason.

“To do X number of tournaments a year, travel 45 weeks a year, wake up and play four hours or more a day, you better have a reason to stay out there,” said Jeff Greenwald, a sports psychiatrist and former No. 1 in the world in the ITF men’s 35. Osaka clearly doesn’t understand why. She doesn’t like the game at all right now. It’s not unusual for someone to be confused after they become famous and make all the money. You suddenly look around and realize that you are at the top. Now what am I supposed to do?’ ”

There’s an argument to be made that Osaka is shouldering more weight than any athlete in recent tennis history. She is not only representing three countries, Japan, Haiti, and the United States, but she is also a face for many causes, including the racial justice movement, and mental health movements. These causes are evidently important to her, and they can be motivating. However, it’s not hard to see that representing them brings with it a lot pressure, especially in a sport like tennis that is already a pressure cooker.

“In Tennis, it’s all about you,” Greenwald stated. “You are exposed and nobody can blame you if anything goes wrong.” While fencing and boxing have this, tennis is fine motor skills. You need to be intense but also be relaxed. To be able strike the ball consistently well, you need to be in that unique state.

“There’s no other sport like tennis in that regard. The ball is stationary in golf. There is no opponent. You have a tennis opponent trying to beat your game. You will have a winner and loser. If you lose, it’s your loss. People have a hard enough time feeling good about themselves in life, let alone in front of 10,000 people or a couple million.”

Osaka has said that since 2018, she’s struggled with bouts of depression and anxiety. Greenwald agrees that she might need a break to reset her mind and reevaluate why she plays.

Agassi was able to get his game back to an elite level, rising to the No. 1 ranking and winning five more Grand Slam events between 1999 and 2003.

Whether Osaka takes a long break or not, Greenwald said he believes that finding purpose will be central to her future in tennis.

” For tennis in particular, one must be 100% committed,” he stated. You have to love adrenaline. You must have a reason. Novak (Djokovic) was probably trying to find motivation two years ago. It doesn’t matter if you want to win a Grand Slam, master the game, or just play for fun. Andre Agassi lost his way, but he found himself again and returned.

“She’s going to have to find her own reason to come back.”

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