Life in Tennis Can Be a Slogan, Even For The Greatest Players

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This moment resonated with almost every player who had a racket, especially those who had reached the pinnacle of tennis.

A tearful Naomi Osaka sat behind a microphone late Friday night and explained how the sport she had at times so dominated has become a joyless dual journey between relief after victories and sadness after defeats. No satisfaction, no happiness.

After a while came what might have been his last public words.

“I think I will take a break from playing for a while,” he said.

How much is anyone’s guess. Osaka’s suffering is her own, like the unhappiness of unhappy families that Tolstoy spoke about at the beginning of Anna Karenina, but tennis has watched this movie so many times that an inevitable question arises: What wins so much in this sport? Such an unbearably miserable community of athletes from the best players in the world, apparently swaddled in wealth, fame and glory?

Canadian star Bianca Andreescu, winner of the US Open, said, “I always think there’s always a love/hate relationship in anything you’re passionate about, because you always want that thing so badly that you want to be perfect.” After his third-round win on Saturday, he said he played in 2019 but has since struggled with injuries, inconsistencies and the disappointments that both come with. “In my case, tennis.”

Instead of aging bodies haunting tennis like ghosts, careers cut short by broken brains.

Swede Bjorn Borg, the 1970s superstar and winner of 11 Grand Slam titles, lost his fourth US Open final in 1981. He left the court, drove away and never played Yet another Grand Slam tournament. He was 25 years old. Steffi Graf, who won 18 Grand Slam titles, left at age 30, just weeks after a French Open title and a Wimbledon final, saying she had lost her motivation and passion for the game. Andre Agassi and Jennifer Capriati succumbed to drug addiction and, in Capriati’s case, addiction, but have managed to bounce back.

More recently, Paula Badosa from Spain spoke about him. fights depression partly due to the disappointments and pressures of the game. Polish Iga Swiatek, who won the 2020 French Open at the age of 19, spoke after closing her eyes at night and seeing little but tennis balls. After losing a tough match at the Olympics, she sobbed, wrapped in a towel, as if she had lost a close relative.

Athletes in team sports talk about the joy of being part of something bigger than themselves, of going into battle surrounded by a group of brothers and sisters.

Golfers play an individual sport filled with overwhelming frustrations, but during a morning or afternoon walking on peaceful, beautiful grounds, a caddy with them gives advice and provides technical and emotional support. When they lose, the golf course gets the best.

Tennis players and coaches speak of the singular intensity and form of solitude that accompanies the game.

From the moment they are little kids, tennis players run for hours on rough, often hot, and sometimes suffocating courts because someone on the other side of the net is trying to exhaust and defeat them. And they do it alone, they are not allowed to communicate with anyone in the most important matches.

They often cross borders, time zones and oceans week to week in a tough 11-month season. Sometimes they race at 11 am. They can start at 11 am the next day. Sleep and meal schedules are irregular.

Tennis players talk differently when they talk about losing. A player who does not hold the trophy at the end of a tournament cannot take second place and semi-finalists do not finish in third or fourth place. Pro golfers who finish fourth often say they had a great week. Marathoners and swimmers talk about being on the podium.

As Novak Djokovic, no stranger to tennis misery, said last night, “We’re a special sport that only has one winner.”

The coronavirus pandemic has only magnified the pressures and traps and added another kind of loneliness. For more than a year, in most tournaments, players have had to limit their movements to their hotels, training grounds, and competition venues, spending long hours alone in soulless rooms. They are tested for Covid-19 every few days, always a swab away from a 10-day isolation away from home.

Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist who traveled with Swiatek, said that in the modern form of the sport, climbing the ranking ladder is an energy-sucking journey to defend your position and cultivate fans as much as sponsors who can provide a financial safety net. bring their own demands.

“If your tank is empty or nearly empty and you feel that there are many challenges all over the performance, it’s impossible to enjoy the process and enjoy this moment,” Abramowicz said.

For better or worse, Osaka uploaded.

He flew to Minneapolis to march with protesters following the murder of George Floyd. After the shooting of Jacob Blake, he single-handedly stopped his sport when he announced that he would not play the semi-finals of the West and South Open. Last year, he wore a mask named after a different victim of police brutality on the court in each of his games at the US Open.

“It allows him to really feel and experience that sadness,” said Pam Shriver, former top player and Grand Slam doubles champion.

In May, prior to the French Open, Osaka tried to upset tennis protocol for years by refusing to attend post-match press conferences because he said they put too much stress on the players, especially after losses. His stance led to an ugly confrontation with the tournament organizers and withdrawal from the tournament after just one game.

In Japan, where it has become a symbol of a new, multiracial vision of a traditionally homogeneous society, he took the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron and be the face of the games. It was his first competition since the French Open.

In a move that John McEnroe said took great courage, he told the world about his battle with depression over the past three years. The seven-time Grand Slam winner and 40 years later still shaken by the sudden departure of his main rival, the Borg, said his candor has probably helped countless people. McEnroe added that due to the increased interest, it could make it difficult for Osaka to develop.

“He’s the kind of player we need 10 more years in the sport, hopefully he should win a bunch more majors if he’s in the right headspace,” McEnroe said days before the US Open kicked off.

After nearly two years on the professional tour with Swiatek, Abramowicz concluded that players can only survive careers – inevitably filled with losses and disappointments – by working every day to build self-worth and confidence that is not measured by wins and standings. relationships, not points. Only then can they find a way to enjoy the process, as frustrating as it may be.

“You have to protect the core values, because without that, nothing would happen,” Abramowicz said. “There is only scorched earth.”

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