Dubai: After years of suffering and anguish, former two-time Roland Garros finalist Robin Soderling has stepped out of the shadows to confess about his struggles through mental illness.
In the latest installment of ATPTour.com’s ‘My Point’ series, the 2009 French Open champion has dealt about mental health and his hopes of helping others who are now going through similar struggles on the men’s and women’s professional tours.
The sporting world has been made to believe that Soderling’s career ended due to mononucleosis – or the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), one of the most common human viruses in the world that spreads primarily through saliva.
But, what went unnoticed perhaps is the fact that the Swedish player battled severe mental illness that ultimately led to him temporarily stop tennis in 2011, and then ultimately announce his retirement two days before Christmas of 2015.
Soderling – who will turn 36 on August 14 - has been candid, if not brutally honest, about the trials and tribulations of having to cope with an unseen ailment for a better part of his career, while bringing in focus the real issues affecting many a player travelling on the fancied tours of professional tennis.
Soderling’s confession opens up with a poignant sentence: “I wanted to crawl out of my own skin,” the Swede admitted.
“In 2011, I was in the best physical shape of my life. I was one of the five best players in the world and I had won four titles by the end of July. But from one day to another, I couldn’t take a step. I couldn’t breathe,” he said.
Soderling then goes on to relate what exactly and how a player who was seen to be among the best in the world, eventually crumbled to an unseen foe. “I was competing in Bastad, in front of my home fans, and I wasn’t feeling well the entire week. I was so wired up. I had a tonne of energy, but not positive energy. I couldn’t find a way to calm myself down, and I only managed to sleep a couple of hours every night,” he related.
“None of this impacted my tennis. I won the title that week, without losing a set. In my last two matches, I lost a combined five games against top-10 players, Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer, to lift the trophy. On the court, I was as good as ever. Off court, I couldn’t have been worse,” he added.
Soderling drove back to Stockholm thinking about how he had a few weeks before his next tournament, so he could finally relax. But the more he relaxed, the worse he felt.
“My body was in some sort of survival mode and when I relaxed, all my mental problems surfaced. It felt like it happened from one day to another. But my body had given me many warnings, physical as well as mental symptoms, telling me I had been pushing my body too hard for too long,” the player admitted.
He reached a career-high No.4 in mid-November 2010 and by then. Soderling’s career highlights included two consecutive finals at the 2009 and 2010 French Open along with an ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title at the 2010 Paris Masters. Most memorable was the fact that Soderling was the first player to defeat Rafael Nadal at the French Open – something that was achieved later by Novak Djokovic in 2015.
On Tour, Soderling’s problems started off slowly – first with his immune system – as he often got sick with a cold, or a persistent sore throat and fever accompanied by feeling dizzy coupled with very little sleep and rest. “But I was one of the people who thought I’d never crash,” he recollected.
But eventually, he did crash.
“I was the perfect person to have a burnout because I was not listening to my body at all. I was pushing to - and past - my limits, which is how I’ve been doing things my whole life since I was a kid. I love to train hard. My only answer to setbacks was pushing harder. Striving for perfection meant putting results ahead of my own wellbeing. Little did I know I would never play a tournament again,” Soderling opened up.
“Athletes speak about injuries all the time, but we never discuss mental illness. There are a few former players who told me they experienced mental illness and some of them had to retire because of it. They never told anyone. It’s so much easier to say, ‘My shoulder is not good, my knee is injured and that’s why I retired.’ I think it’s just a shame. I don’t think we can make it easier for people around the world dealing with this awful issue if we don’t start viewing mental illness as seriously as we should,” Soderling admitted.
“There’s no shame in speaking about mental illness. It’s a very common problem in today’s society, no matter if you’re playing sports or working in another field. It’s something that needs to be spoken about a lot more. Doing so doesn’t make you look weak. In reality, it makes you stronger,” he related.
Soderling has then gone on to advice fellow professionals that there’s no harm or shame in speaking about mental illnesses.
“For those dealing with mental illness, don’t be afraid to admit something is wrong. I would suggest finding someone who you could speak to, preferably someone who has gone through this. That is what helped me and I don’t know where I’d be without it,” he suggested.
“Every time I wake up in the morning my first thought is, ‘How do I feel?’ I take five or 10 minutes to do some meditation just to go through the body. It’s so easy to ignore those small symptoms or those small signals that your body is sending out. You can do it for one year or five years, or even ten years, but sooner or later you will crash. Even if you think you’re feeling better, don’t try to convince yourself everything is okay if it’s not.
For those dealing with mental illness, don’t be afraid to admit something is wrong. I would suggest finding someone who you could speak to, preferably someone who has gone through this. That is what helped me and I don’t know where I’d be without it
“Take some rest and don’t be afraid of doing things outside of tennis or your chosen profession. If I could do my career all over again, I would have probably found an interest, started studying something. Even when I was 21 or 22, I should have been planning for my future after my career. It’s so much easier if you have something to fall back on,” he added.
The player has finally explained why he has stepped out of his comfort zone while narrating his story. “Thankfully, after a few really, really tough years, I started feeling better. Now, I consider that a closed chapter in my life. It’s not something I like talking about. For years, I wasn’t ready to share my story. I was able to accomplish a lot during my career and I didn’t want to reminisce on those awful years I had. Why now?,” he asked.
“The thought of helping one player or one person is enough for me. When I started dealing with this issue, there was no example for me to look towards. Nobody out there publicly made it seem like it was okay to deal with mental illness. As a kid, nobody spoke about it,” Soderling added.
“To become a professional athlete, you have to work extremely hard and a big part of your life has to be about tennis. But the problem becomes when it is your whole life. There’s a really thin line. Basically everything I cared about was tennis. Choosing to have an apple, I was wondering whether it was good for my tennis. Should I go to the cinema? Maybe not. I need to sleep nine hours, not eight,” he mulled.
“It’s not just about performing today or tomorrow, it’s about having a long career and feeling well, too. This isn’t just about your next tournament or assignment, it’s about your quality of life,” Soderling added.