Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka Image Credit: Ador T Bustamante/Gulf News

Nobody really batted an eyelid when in March this year, Mari Osaka, a professional tennis player ranked at 300-plus walked away from the sport at only 24 years. It’s a journey which she didn’t “apparently enjoy,” but such retirements from also-ran players hardly get any eyeballs.

There was, however, one difference — she happened to be the elder sister of world No. 2 Naomi Osaka. The duo had played doubles together sporadically, and according to the celebrated younger sister, Mari used to whip her ‘6-0 ish’ in their formative days.

In the context of what transpired over the week at French Open which eventually resulted in Osaka withdrawing from the tournament, it does send a chill down the spine. At 23, with four Grand Slams in her bag already and being touted as the heir apparent to Serena Williams, one can only hope that it’s all but a passing phase and not a downward spiral.

The elder of the Osaka sisters, born to a Haitian father and Japanese mum, would have been justified in giving it up — as the intensely level playing field of disciplines like tennis or golf always sees fewer success stories than failures. But what could have been wrong with Naomi, the poster girl of tennis at the moment, that she would dread being grilled by the media when she is particularly down after a poor match? And that too, barely three months after winning her last Grand Slam at the Australian Open?

This is where mind matters come in — and it doesn’t come calling. The performance anxiety could be just one aspect of it, but the myriad nature of the problem means like any normal human being on the street, even the superachievers can be in the grip of an attack of depression — as she has revealed. Some can live through it to tell it all after he or she has quit the sport, in a potentially best-seller autobiography, but Osaka was candid to reveal it.

There is already a groundswell of support among top sportspersons as she possibly became the first athlete to withdraw from a tournament without any trace of a physical injury. Most athletes are comfortable talking about injuries, so long as they can point to a bruise, a bandage, a cast or a spot on an X-ray. Their mental health, of course, is a different story.

It was with grace with which she bowed out of the tournament, that too after a first round win but no media commitments — which led the Parisian authorities to threaten her with fines. It looked a well-crafted message on her Twitter handle, where she admitted not wanting to become a ‘’distraction’’ to other players for the tournament to carry on and how she values her relationships with some of the members of the tennis writers’ fraternity.

Could the situation have been handled better — both on the part of Osaka’s support team first and then, of course, the French Open authorities? It’s nothing short of tragic to know how she had been battling depression from 19 years ever since she shot to limelight by upsetting Serena Williams in that US Open final, but one couldn’t help draw the initial impression that she chose to avoid the media obligations — even at the cost of paying fines.

The controversy seemed to be getting bigger in the build-up to the event and the pressure must have been building on Osaka when some of the biggest names of the sport — be world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Rafa Nadal to some of her peers — started criticising her decision in not to subtle manner. The Serb, however, was quick to amend his stance as soon as Osaka’s admission came out — saying that it was ‘brave’ on her part to come out with it in the open.

Djokovic went a step forward to suggest that she should take a break from the sport — and he was talking from experience. Once an infallible competitor, he fought his own demons for a prolonged stretch and had come back fitter and stronger — though the buzz was that his problems stemmed from his personal life.

Fortunately for the media, it’s role in dissecting a player emotionally within minutes of a shattering loss has taken a back seat now. There are, however, commentative pieces in the Western media which builds on the narrative of now Osaka — a black and Asian woman charged with fielding questions to an audience of majority white men — can be potentially disturbing.

Let’s face it, in the world of organised, professional sport like the tennis or golf, one can speak from experience that an executive of the Tour is always present to monitor the duration of press conferences, put the sequence of questions in order — while the athlete is often at liberty not to field a question. With nearly five years behind her of facing up to the post-match rituals organised by the WTA, it’s possibly fair to assume that a sense of vulnerability building inside her may have had prompted Osaka to contemplate a media boycott in the first place rather than a hatred for the Fourth Estate.

A rewind of her growth as a player reveals an extraordinary story of an ‘outsider’ breaking through into the big league with sheer talent and grit. Born in Osaka City, Japan in 1997, Naomi was hardly three when she moved with her immigrant family to the US. She took up tennis at a young age, hitting against her older sister Mari.

As their family struggled to live an American dream, a precociously talented Naomi turned pro back in 2013, just shy of her 16th birthday. Her talent did not go unnoticed as in 2016, the Women’s Tennis Association awarded her with their Newcomer of the Year honour.

In what was nothing short of a spectacular achievement, she made the sport sit up within two years of turning pro when in September 2018, she stunned her idol Serena Williams in the final to win her first grand slam title with US Open. Osaka had entered the tournament ranked No. 17 in the world, which made her the youngest woman to break into the world’s Top 20.

Little wonder that she eventually went on to capture the No. 1 ranking in January 2019. The next year, Osaka surpassed the legendary Serena as the highest-paid female athlete in the world. While Ash Barty could be officially the number one ranked player among women, tennis fans acknowledge that it’s Osaka who brings in the X-factor in the women’s game now — something Roland Garros may be missing, thanks to lack of empathy on part of the French Open management.

Where does Osaka go from here? If it’s a break from the game, coupled with psychological help, then she would definitely go for it — as it’s neither the first or last time that we have heard of a top sportsperson grappling with mental health issues. Ask Michael Phelps, the greatest of Olympians, who had revealed suicidal tendencies at the peak of his career or Osaka’s idol Serena Williams herself.

There have been any number of treatise on the subject, but a basic underlining theory is elite athletes — who may show nerves of steel on the court or the pitch — are vulnerable to mental health disorders as a result of the various specific stressors they experience in their sporting environment. The key factors behind this are the impact of injury, overtraining, social media scrutiny and ongoing competitive pressure to perform.

We won’t know if Osaka had any of the above factors as a trigger. In an interview with GQ a few years back, she gave a rare insight into the making of a new Osaka 2.0 when she said:

“I feel like as I grew up, I learnt more and I realised that life isn’t based on just the tennis game I play. It’s sort of based on little things, like your actions as a person. Like saying hello to everyone you meet and stuff like that. I feel like that is more validating than whether I win a tennis match or not.”

Point taken, but we need her back on the court sooner than latter. For the sake of tennis …