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OSAKA NEEDS A LONG BREAK FROM US, AND WE NEED ONE FROM HER
Her once-boundless tennis career has unraveled into a full-blown life crisis, and after her U.S. Open meltdown, the 4-time Grand Slam champ must decide if she wants to be Serena … or Anna Kournikova
This is no time for cheap and clumsy psychoanalysis, another breakdown of a young athlete breaking down. Nor is it time for belittlement, scoldings or an annoyed reminder that she made $60.1 million last year, all but $5 million in endorsements that serve the public she’s trying to escape.
We should be past the point of mocking and booing Naomi Osaka, as a New York crowd did on a night when she slammed her racket repeatedly, smacked a ball into the stands and wasted another major opportunity. She needs to breathe, find oxygen, rediscover light. She must save her tennis career and figure out the emotional entanglements of a life gone awry.
So let her.
“How do I go around saying this?’’ said Osaka, still all of 23, once again in tears at yet another tortured post-match news conference. “I feel like for me recently, like, when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.
“This is very hard to articulate. Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. Yeah, I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”
With that, she apologized through her sobs and left Arthur Ashe Stadium, fleeing a U.S. Open she first conquered three Septembers ago when her idol, Serena Williams, was the one melting down and throwing tantrums. In that sense, Osaka has traveled an unforeseen full circle filled with darkness and depression. Everyone in this world deals with mental issues, never more so than during a pandemic that isn’t fading, but the difference is that hers are on full global display. And if it wasn’t completely evident before, when her complaints suggested naivety and privilege and too much influence by her enabling handlers, it’s now obvious that massive competitive stages only serve as exposed prisms that further assault her senses.
Tennis is not a sport for those easily unnerved, even a superstar blessed with the talent to overpower foes and dominate the landscape. It doesn’t matter if Osaka has almighty groundstrokes, maybe the fiercest the women’s game has seen, when she can’t control her inner wiring.
So the goal now is to disappear and locate lost joy. For the blueprint, she simply can view the tape of her third-round loss to an 18-year-old Canadian who seized Osaka’s issues — on the very same court where Osaka took advantage of Williams’ issues. Leylah Fernandez, ranked 73rd in the world, was everything the four-time Grand Slam champion was not. She radiated throughout a three-set victory, delighting a tough audience with charm and glee and positive energy. While Osaka was brooding and abusing equipment, the feisty, determined teen was pumping her fist and playing to an adoring crowd. Asked later what inspired her to shake off a first-set crash and win a second-set tiebreaker, her response brought roars from the audience.
“I guess I wanted to stay on the court a little bit longer, and I wanted to put on a show for everybody here,” a grinning Fernandez said on the court, name-dropping “New York’’ twice. “One hour was just not enough for me.”
But another comment was more telling. When a reporter mentioned Osaka’s racket-throwing episodes, Fernandez said: “I wasn’t really focused on Naomi. I was only focused on myself, my game and what I needed to do. Having the crowd there supporting me and backing me up after every point, it’s amazing. It gave me the energy to keep fighting, to keep working and keep running for those balls that she hit.”
Thus continued a hellish year for Osaka. At match point, when she paused behind the baseline to adjust her racket strings, the fans booed, thinking she was attempting to rattle Fernandez. On tournament eve, there was hope she could reach into her soul and win her third Open. But an Instagram post late last month seemed more tormented than theraputic.
“I think I’m never good enough,” Osaka wrote. “I’ve never told myself that I’ve done a good job but I constantly tell myself that I suck or that I could do better. Your life is your own and you shouldn’t value yourself on other people’s standards. I know I give my heart to everything I can and if that is not good enough for some then my apologies, but I can’t burden myself with those expectations anymore. Seeing everything that’s going on in the world, I feel like if I wake up in the morning that’s a win.’’
Days later, at her first press conference since leaving a Cincinnati session in tears, Osaka still was distracted by the voices within. One element that puzzles some of us is her eagerness to exploit the glamour side of media — such as, her fashion shoots for Vogue and Sports Illustrated — when she disdains Zoom conferences with professional reporters.
“Doing the magazine stuff and then doing press conferences are two completely different things,’’ she said. “For me, I love learning from (the fashion) experiences, because usually when you do Vogue or something, you can meet the designer or meet the head of the house. That’s like a cool experience for me. I think press conferences like these, I’ve become really desensitized to it because I’ve been doing them since I was really young. I feel like there are moments, especially like during the Zoom calls, where I just feel like I’m sitting in front of a screen taking questions. When someone joins a Zoom that I don’t know, and I feel like they’re giving me really bad energy, I feel like I have to put multiple guards up.’’
Right about now, we can hear the groans of legendary athletes who’ve had to overcome “bad energy.’’ In previous columns about Osaka and Simone Biles, I’ve pointed out that overcoming emotional obstacles — persevering and never surrendering — defines champions such as Michael Phelps, whose potent commentaries about his mental health struggles include the happy ending of 28 Olympic medals, 23 of the gold variety. In that context, maybe Naomi Osaka isn’t chasing Williams in the pantheon.
Maybe she’s the next Maria Sharapova — or, dare I say, Anna Kournikova — destined for couture more than all-time greatness. Clearly, the money and trophies don’t move her when she is required to deal with the accompanying pressure. Will she ever accept it as an occupational hazard that comes with the millions and the Vogue fame? Or will she run away and never regain her form? The tantrums, which she normally avoids, aren’t a good sign that she can recover anytime soon.
“I’m really sorry about that. I’m not really sure why. I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel maybe there was a boiling point,” she said. “Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently, I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now.
“You could kind of see that. I was kind of like a little kid.”
At least she is admitting as much. Consider it a proper starting point for an exhausted, joyless soul who must reach for a human compass now, not her phone.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.