Even for the Greatest Players, Life in Tennis Can Be a Slog

The second resonated with almost each participant who has ever picked up a racket, and particularly those that have reached the pinnacle of tennis.

A tearful Naomi Osaka sat behind a microphone late on Friday evening and spoke of how the sport she has so dominated at occasions has turn out to be a joyless binary journey between aid after victories and unhappiness following losses. There isn’t any contentment, no happiness.

Then got here what could also be her final public phrases for a while.

“I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while,” she stated.

How lengthy is anybody’s guess. But whereas Osaka’s distress is her personal — like the unhappiness of the sad households Tolstoy refers to at the begin of Anna Karenina — tennis has seen this film so many occasions earlier than that an unavoidable query arises: What is it about this sport that makes so a lot of the finest gamers in the world, a assortment of athletes seemingly swaddled in wealth and fame and glory, so intolerably depressing?

“I think with anything you’re passionate about, it’s always a love/hate relationship, because you want that thing so bad all the time, you want to be perfect,” Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian star who gained the U.S. Open the first time she performed it in 2019 however has battled accidents, inconsistency and the frustrations that include each ever since, stated after her third-round win Saturday. “In my case, it’s tennis.”

Careers minimize quick due to damaged minds fairly than growing older our bodies hang-out tennis like ghosts.

Bjorn Borg of Sweden, a famous person of the 1970s and winner of 11 Grand Slam titles, misplaced his fourth U.S. Open ultimate in 1981. He walked off the courtroom, drove away in his automobile, and by no means performed one other Grand Slam event once more. He was 25. Steffi Graf, the winner of 22 Grand Slam singles titles, give up at 30, simply weeks after a French Open title and a Wimbledon ultimate, saying she had misplaced her motivation and fervour for the sport. Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati succumbed to drug abuse and, in Capriati’s case, habit, although they managed to mount comebacks.

More just lately, Paula Badosa of Spain has spoken of her battles with melancholy introduced on in half by the frustrations and pressures of the sport. Iga Swiatek of Poland, who gained the 2020 French Open at 19, spoke after a latest lack of seeing little apart from tennis balls when she closed her eyes at evening. After dropping a hard-fought match at the Olympics she sobbed into a towel as if she had misplaced a shut relative.

Paula Badosa has spoken of her melancholy introduced on by the pressures of the sport.Credit…Aaron Doster/Associated Press

Athletes in group sports activities discuss the pleasure that comes from being a a part of one thing bigger than themselves, of heading into battle surrounded by a band of brothers and sisters.

Golfers play a person sport full of crushing frustrations, however they stroll peaceable, lovely grounds by way of a morning or afternoon, a caddie by their aspect lending recommendation and offering technical and emotional assist. When they lose, the golf course will get the better of them.

Tennis gamers and coaches communicate of the singular type of depth and loneliness that accompanies the sport.

From the time they’re young children, tennis gamers run on exhausting, usually scorching, and generally sweltering courts for hours as a human on the different aspect of the web tries to pound them into exhaustion and defeat. And they do it alone, prohibited from speaking with anybody throughout the most essential matches.

They cross borders and time zones and oceans usually from week to week throughout a grueling, 11-month season. Sometimes they compete at 11 o’clock in the morning. The subsequent day they could begin at 11 at evening. Sleeping and consuming schedules are discombobulated.

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Tennis gamers discuss in a different way after they discuss dropping. The participant not holding the trophy at the finish of a event doesn’t come in second place, and semifinalists don’t end in third or fourth. Pro golfers who completed fourth usually say that they had a nice week. Marathoners and swimmers discuss being on the podium.

As Novak Djokovic, no stranger to tennis distress, stated the different evening, “We are a particular sport that only has one winner.”

The coronavirus pandemic has solely magnified pressures and pitfalls, and added one other type of loneliness. For greater than a yr, at most tournaments gamers have needed to restrict their actions to their accommodations, observe courts and competitors venues, passing lengthy hours alone in soulless rooms. They are examined for Covid-19 each few days, at all times one swab away from a 10-day isolation removed from residence.

Daria Abramowicz, a sports activities psychologist who travels with Swiatek, stated the sport in its trendy type is an power sucking journey of climbing the rankings ladder, defending your place, and cultivating followers, in addition to sponsors, who can present a monetary security web however convey their very own calls for.

Daria Abramowicz, a sports activities psychologist, with Iga Swiatek in Australia in February.Credit…Alana Holmberg for The New York Times

“If your tank is empty or almost empty, and if you feel burdened that there are a lot of challenges all around the performance, it is impossible to enjoy the process and enjoy this moment,” Abramowicz stated.

For higher or worse, Osaka has taken on burdens.

After the homicide of George Floyd, she flew to Minneapolis to march with protesters. After the capturing of Jacob Blake, she single-handedly introduced her sport to a standstill when she introduced she wouldn’t play her semifinal match in the Western & Southern Open. She wore a masks with the identify of a completely different sufferer of police violence onto the courtroom for every of her matches at the U.S. Open final yr.

“She allows herself to really feel and experience that sadness,” stated Pam Shriver, the former prime participant and Grand Slam doubles champion.

In May, forward of the French Open, Osaka tried to overturn years of tennis protocol when she refused to take part in post-match information conferences as a result of she stated they put an excessive amount of stress on gamers, particularly after losses. Her stance led to an unpleasant confrontation with event organizers and her withdrawal from the event after only one match.

In Japan, the place she has turn out to be a image of a new, multiracial imaginative and prescient of a historically homogeneous society, she embraced the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron and turning into the face of the Games. It was her first competitors since the French Open.

She has informed the world about her battles with melancholy the previous three years, a transfer that John McEnroe stated took nice braveness. The seven-time Grand Slam winner, who 40 years later continues to be shaken by the sudden departure of Borg, his chief rival, stated her candor in all probability helped numerous individuals. McEnroe added that it could additionally make it more durable for Osaka to thrive due to the elevated consideration it brings.

“She’s the type of player we need around the sport another 10 years, that should win a bunch of more majors hopefully, if she’s in the right head space,” McEnroe stated days earlier than the begin of the U.S. Open.

After spending roughly two years on the professional tour with Swiatek, Abramowicz has concluded that gamers can survive careers — inevitably full of losses and disappointment — solely by working day-after-day to construct self-worth and self-confidence that isn’t measured by wins and rankings factors however fairly relationships. Only then can they discover a strategy to take pleasure in the course of, as enervating because it is perhaps.

“You need to maintain the core values, because without that there is nothing,” Abramowicz stated. “There is just burned ground.”