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Naomi Osaka isn’t enjoying herself even when she wins—so you can understand her need for a break from the game
Let’s hope it helps, and we see on court again soon, happy to be there.
Published Sep 04, 2021
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“I feel like for me recently, when I win I don’t feel happy,” Naomi Osaka said after her third-round loss to Leylah Fernandez on Friday at the US Open. “I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
A few seconds later, Osaka said that she was going to take a break from tennis “for a while,” and that she didn’t know when she was going to play her next match.
Is it “normal” to feel little more than relief when you win a tennis match, or to be overcome by irrational gloom when you lose? I think a lot of players, at all levels, know exactly how Osaka feels in that regard. There’s a sense of relief after every win, especially when you know you’re supposed to beat your opponent. And it’s hard, even though you may know “it’s only a game,” to leave a loss behind when you leave the court. The frustration and disappointment, with yourself, follows you around—tennis is personal, because it’s all you. And the vast majority of us don’t have to lose in front of millions of people, the way Osaka and her fellow pros do.
What doesn’t seem normal or positive about Osaka’s current mindset is her statement that winning doesn’t make her feel happy. Yes, there’s a sense of relief after every win, but ideally there should also be a sense of joy and satisfaction in a job well done. As much as athletes are told to focus on the process rather than the outcome, there’s no denying that winning feeling, even if it’s just as irrational as a losing feeling. It’s what has inspired ageless stars like Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Martina Navratilova and Roger Federer to sacrifice everything and keep coming back to the court over and over. They never would have done it if they thought they were going to lose all the time. When you hear that someone like Osaka isn’t getting that feeling from winning anymore, you can understand why she would want to take a break from the sport.
Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now. Naomi Osaka
Even when Osaka was ahead in her match against Fernandez, she looked frustrated with her play. She was the stronger player, the older player, the higher-ranked player—yet her opponent was keeping the score close. When Osaka was broken as she served for the match, that frustration reached a “boiling point,” and she slammed her racquet to the court. “I was kind of like a little kid,” she said.
“Normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now.”
Osaka is the defending champion and has been No. 1 in the world, so it would be understandable if her expectations are higher for herself now than they once were, and her disappointment in not meeting those expectations more acute.
Through the match, and as Osaka was venting, there was talk on TV about her mental health. Mental health and frustration with losing are different issues, and are probably best thought of separately. At the same time, we don’t know how they might intersect for Osaka. After the match, she said, “I know I’m dealing with some stuff,” which didn’t sound tennis-related. But the stress of competition on the court might exacerbate whatever she’s feeling off it, and vice-versa. Which would be all the more reason for her to take a break from that stress.
There are elements of Osaka’s situation, as a tennis player, that many of us can relate to. But there are elements of her situation, as a person, that those of us on the outside have no real idea about, and can’t usefully speculate on. I know how my own anxieties and fears feel, and where they come from, but not hers. I’m just going to hope that her break from the game helps her deal with them, and that we see her on court sometime soon, happy to be there again.