Fewer than seven months ago, Naomi Osaka held a Grand Slam trophy for the fourth time in her career. At a mere 23 years old, Osaka had crossed a threshold in Australia — she wasn’t just the top women’s tennis player in the world but on a path toward becoming one of the best of all time.
On Friday, she walked off the court at Arthur Ashe Stadium still a 23-year-old with four Grand Slams but in a much different context — trying to find the right words through the tears, struggling to understand what she wants her purpose to be and clearly at a crossroads with the sport that has brought her worldwide fame and wealth beyond comprehension.
Osaka, the No. 3 seed and defending U.S. Open champion, suffered a stunning defeat in the third round Friday night to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, the 73rd-ranked player in the world. But the bigger news came after the final ball was hit in Fernandez’s 5-7, 7-6, 6-4 win when Osaka said she needed a break from tennis and did not know when she would be back on the court.
Given everything that has transpired since Osaka’s Australian Open title, we can’t rule out the possibility the answer is never.
“For me, recently, when I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief,” Osaka said, answering a question at the end of her news conference that was asked in Japanese. “And then when I lose I feel very sad and I don’t think that’s normal. I didn’t really want to cry but basically I feel like…”
As her voice trailed off into a long pause, the moderator tried to end the press conference, but Osaka wouldn’t allow it.
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After Osaka lost a string of matches this spring on clay, which preceded the flap at the French Open over not talking to the media, she was off the tour until the Olympics while her competitors were grinding out tournaments all over Europe. With so little tennis under her belt this year, it’s not a huge surprise that she struggled to put together winning performances under pressure.
Beyond whatever other mental health issues she deals with, Osaka has to come to grips with the idea that losing isn’t just acceptable, it’s totally normal.