The greatness of Naomi Osaka cannot hide her pain

Naomi Osaka, one of the world’s greatest tennis players, should give herself permission to step off the court.

For real this time. Not a four-month break she took after the US Open last year. And certainly not another two months of chill out, like when she withdrew from the French Open after revealing her battle with depression.

Each time she returned to the sport, she gained even more attention as a champion of athletes’ mental health and even more sponsorships as a global brand ambassador. You should always return when you are the leader of a movement or the front-facing CEO of a sports empire. Tennis doesn’t just stop for a four-time Grand Slam champion who jumped to the forefront among the highest paid female athletes with more than $ 55 million in off-court earnings last year.

But while Osaka Inc. thrive, Naomi, the woman, is in pain. Tennis does not seem to help. And she does not owe anyone to keep trying – not her sponsors, not her fans and not the game.

On Saturday, Osaka, 24, was visibly shaken four minutes inside her match at the BNP Paribas Open when a woman shouted, “Naomi, you suck!” Osaka had just been cracked by her opponent, Veronika Kudermetova, but that predicament – an unimaginative snort but an ordinary one – seemed to crack her.

Naomi Osaka brought to tears of vandalism during the loss at Indian Wells

It’s hard to imagine this particular mockery having such an impact on another superstar athlete of her caliber. But Osaka, a fierce competitor as she may be on the field, has lived a protected and shy life outside. She and her sister, Mari, began practicing and playing at the age of 3. They were homeschooled and trained eight hours a day, and their worlds consisted of each other and their Japanese mother and Haitian father, who raised them to become tennis champions. In his Netflix documentaries, three episodes of Melancholy, Osaka suggests a lonely upbringing.

“When we were growing up, we kept a little to ourselves.… Nobody really knows all the sacrifices you make just to be good,” she says.

Osaka, who is so subdued that her words sometimes crawl out in a painful whisper, apologizes when there is nothing to be sorry about, and tumbles out of thanks as if they put an end to the end of her sentences. She’s so polite that she probably would not even scream “You suck!” in a vacuum, let alone another human being.

Still, someone else said that to her, and instead of brushing it off, Osaka wanted the judge’s microphone to address the audience. It showed a certain kind of mental toughness – she had the willingness to confront the army and protect herself. But perhaps the bravest thing Osaka can do now is save itself by leaving the limelight.

Anyone who has been tempted to reuse the hasty conclusion that athletes facing real-life crises will find their peace on the track has not been paying much attention lately. Simone Biles stepped away from the biggest stage of her sport, the Olympics, when her mind and body, plagued by memories of the sexual abuse she and her teammates were subjected to, would not adapt to being able to perform air turns. Recently, Ohio State lineman Harry Miller said he “medically retired” from football – but only after playing a couple of games last season where he carried the scars on his wrists, left by self-inflicted wounds from a box cutter.

These athletes who walked away prioritized their mental health and themselves. A healing balm is not always found in suppressing emotional turmoil through physical acts of strength.

Osaka, of course, has already spent time away and has shown some growth. We have heard it in her honesty, in how she has worked to overcome extreme shyness, to seek gratitude in everyday life and to value herself as more than a commodity on the tennis court.

Her post-match news conferences sound like therapy sessions. After her first tournament after the first coronavirus outbreak in 2020, Osaka said she spent some of the shutdown learning to talk to different people. (But it is telling that Osaka built endurance to be more outgoing at a time when there was less human interaction and faces were hidden behind masks.)

So last week, after her first-round victory in Indian Wells, California, where she could have been frustrated by the conditions, she instead found humor in the gusts of wind and thanked fans for staying and watching in the cold. During the same interview session, Osaka did not hesitate to admit that she had previously linked her self-esteem to her success.

“I can not be brave enough to say that I completely changed that mindset,” she said. “Of course I feel like I’m the type of person who wants to be valuable. It feels better if people think you are – do not think you are important – but as if I am valuable for someone’s life, I feel like they treat me better or something, you know? “

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Perhaps as the mockery stuck through the silence, Osaka felt worthless when all she was trying to do was entertain and compete. She said mockery began to repeat in her mind an endless loop of the shameful treatment that Venus and Serena Williams received at the same tournament in 2001. Then their father, Richard, said that buh and mockery were racistly motivated.

Who can tell what is in the heart of a hater? Maybe this woman actually paid US dollars to participate in a tennis tournament just to harass Osaka because of her skin color. But maybe it’s not that simple, and it’s not Osaka’s journey to wholeness either.

The growth is not tidy, nor is it linear. Osaka does not step off the tennis court for four months and then emerges whole and healed. This is how it works in the fiction or in the simplistic features we write in the sports media when an athlete returns from an offseason with bigger biceps and a clearer mind. We tend to celebrate transformations as if they happen on a schedule, to describe someone’s problems in the past.

But real growth is advancing inches. It is continuous and uncomfortable as it happens with Osaka.

The purpose of this column is not to play keyboard psychologist, and perhaps Osaka prefers to live out his emotions out loud. In her documentary series, she advises young star Coco Gauff that if she needs to cry, she should do so in front of US Open spectators instead of alone in the shower. Even as critics grumble that she is a soft millennial and supporters want to embrace her, Osaka continues to pour out into public spaces, no matter how messy it is.

But as a teaser for the third episode of her documentary series, Osaka says: “Honestly, tennis is not necessary for anything.… I love to do it, but there are more important things in the world. I think about what would happen if the world “What would happen if tennis stopped?”

After several years of dealing with internal pressure to be great, to stand as the symbol of mental health and to build its brand, Osaka should consider not just thinking about what would happen if tennis stopped, but actually figuring it out – before the game breaks her completely.

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