No-one for tennis? Mental health, injuries and the Aussie Open

The 2023 Australian Open, due to start in Melbourne on 17 January, has already suffered a number of casualties. Who knows how many more are to come?

The 19-year-old number one ranked player, Carlos Alcaraz, has withdrawn, citing a hamstring injury. Former finalist, Simone Halep, has also pulled out. The leading home player, Nick Krygios, is not certain to play, after withdrawing from the United Cup and the Adelaide International with a knee injury.

Fellow Aussie, Ash Barty, the women’s holder, bowed out at the top of her game after winning last year’s tournament. Venus Williams is another casualty, having injured herself at the warm-up tournament in Auckland.

Emma Raducanu, the 2021 US Open champion, is nursing a knee injury sustained on what she claimed to be a dangerously slippery court in Auckland, so she’s another one who might not compete.

And then there are the recent retirements of Roger Federer and Serena Williams from the tour.

So, it looks like a somewhat depleted draw at the 2023 opening Grand Slam in Melbourne.

The latest casualty is the 25-year-old Japanese player, Naomi Osaka, a former world number one and the 2019 and 2021 champion.

Osaka hasn’t played a match on tour since withdrawing from the second round in Tokyo last September with abdominal pains. She has won just one match since last May. She is now down to number 47 in the rankings.

But Osaka’s main battle has been more mental than physical.

She famously withdrew from the French Open and Wimbledon in 2021, partly due to the tournament organisers threatening to scratch her for refusing to attend post-match press conferences. For this refusal she was vilified by both press and a number of fellow players. To be expected to walk into one of those gruelling conferences after a heavy loss was finally too much for her. Rather than bow to the pressure, she walked away from the game, saying that it was to ease her anxiety and depression.

If you watch the Netflix documentary, “Naomi Osaka”, you get a sense of why this happened. We see her match in 2018, at the age of 20, where she beat Serena Williams in the final of the US Open amidst huge controversy. That match is remembered more for the appalling behaviour of her opponent than for the Japanese player’s victory. Serena more or less accused the umpire of stealing the match from her by docking her points for receiving coaching and got the home crowd baying for his blood. But what she actually did was to steal her opponent’s glory. Mentally, Osaka never really recovered from that debacle and things just seemed to go downhill from there. Yes, she won another three slams but there seemed little joy in those successes.

Osaka started playing the game at the age of three and from then on there was relentless pressure to perform. What kind of childhood was that?

As she says in the documentary: “I feel you have to be mentally strong to play the game. It’s a solo sport and when you’re out there, you’re on your own.”  On your own, but with millions watching every move and ready to pounce on every failure.

We see how tough the tour is at a physical level; hour after numbing hour playing the same shots over and over – no wonder all these players get injured so often. And, they may travel the world, but they rarely get the opportunity to visit the city sights, which seems a terrible waste. We also get to see how lonely the tour can be. The faceless hotels, the constant jet lag, the lack of social interaction, since your peers are also your opponents and you can’t get too close. Family and friends can’t follow you round the world – most don’t have the time, the money or, indeed, the inclination. Your only constant is your coach. Only the very top players, like Novak Djokovic, can afford a team of physios, nutritionists, hitting partners etc. as numerous companions in their corner.

I was always intrigued by the fact that when Osaka won that US Open, her first Grand Slam title, she immediately sacked her coach, Sascha Bajin. Why would you do that, when he’s been instrumental in your success and your closest companion? It did strike me as odd.

I have a nasty feeling that Emma Raducanu could go the same way. She also sacked her coach, Andrew Richardson, immediately after her US Open triumph. Who knows why? But again it seemed very strange.

And since that tournament, she’s had injury after injury, endless retirements and she’s plunged down the rankings after that initial success. She puts on a brave face, but she’s since gone through several coaches, one after another. What’s sad is that it was all so predictable. It’s surely only a matter of time before she cracks mentally.

Ironically, in 2022, Osaka and Raducanu were the number one and four top-paid female athletes despite their respective rankings of 47 and 78. They may each have made around one million dollars on court but their off-court activities and sponsorships earned them a respective 50 and 18 million dollars.  For the moment they are still box office in terms of the likes of Dior, Porsche and Tiffany, but if their results carry on like this, that surely won’t last.

Naomi Osaka has recently left IMG, the giant talent agency, to set up her own agency called Evolve. So she is now heavily involved in off-court activities and that seems to be the direction in which she’s heading.

And what’s interesting is that she has recently signed the troubled “bad boy” Aussie player, Nick Krygios. He too has owned up to mental health issues and that’s brought the two of them closer.

Netflix is also producing a series of documentaries called “Break Point”, going behind the scenes of the game. Perhaps it should have been called “Breaking Point”. The first one will be on Nick Krygios, airing on 13th January, which also touches on those mental health issues and the loneliness of the tour. Here is another highly talented player, a Grand Slam finalist, currently on a relatively lowly ranking of number 22.

I await that programme with interest, but also with trepidation. I suspect that it’s going to make for uncomfortable viewing.


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