Analysis: Osaka should take whatever time off she needs

Sep 3, 2021, 11:45 PM | Updated: Sep 4, 2021, 12:18 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Naomi Osaka does not owe it to anyone to play tennis for the rest of this season. Or, really, ever again.

The only person she needs to answer to at this point is herself.

The fans and the critics, the tournaments and the TV executives, the sponsors whose millions have made her the world’s highest-earning female athlete? They ought to let Osaka figure things out.

Because, clearly, she needs some time to do some thinking, and to do that thinking away from it all, away from the stresses and the pressure, whether on the court or off — and whether placed on her from others or generated from within.

“I guess we’re all dealing with some stuff,” Osaka said Friday night after her U.S. Open title defense was stopped by a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 loss to unseeded 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, “but I know that I’m dealing with some stuff.”

Has been, too, for quite some time. When Osaka pulled out of the French Open before her second-round match this year to take a mental health break, she revealed she has faced “bouts of depression” since 2018. She then also sat out Wimbledon, so the U.S. Open was her first Grand Slam competition in three months.

On Friday, as her lead slipped away late in the second set, Osaka repeatedly spiked or chucked her racket, then was warned for hitting a ball into the stands, outwardly expressing some of what was going on inside while playing in front of more than 20,000 people in Arthur Ashe Stadium — some of whom booed her — and millions more watching on television around the world.

She also quite literally hid from everyone — or blocked everyone out — by draping a white towel over her head while on the sideline.

“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,” she said. “I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now.”

She went on to say she isn’t sure when she will want to play tennis again, which on its face is a rather remarkable sentiment, considering what Osaka’s professional life looks like from the outside at age 23.

A four-time Grand Slam champion. A former No. 1-ranked player currently No. 3. A superstar in Japan, where she was born — before moving with her family at age 3 to the U.S., where she is still based — and famous and successful enough to be given the honor of lighting the cauldron during the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics.

And yet …

“When I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad,” Osaka said Friday, words harder to come by than tears at that moment. “I don’t think that’s normal.”

It’s certainly not the way any of us would want to feel.

Osaka is fortunate in many ways, one of which is that she has a job, and a bank account, that allow her to go on as extensive a break as she needs. So it only makes sense for her to do that.

There is no event too important for her to miss, which is how she might have looked at the Summer Games.

“Take all the time you need to recover, rest, and heal, @naomiosaka,” International Tennis Hall of Fame member Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Sending you love and support.”

During Osaka’s pre-tournament news conference in Flushing Meadows a week ago, a reporter asked whether she looks at the tennis court as some sort of sanctuary that allows her to forget about anything else going on in her life.

Is that a place where she can just swing her racket and worry only about that for a little while?

“It would be nice if there was that line for me, but no. I’m the type of person that everything is sort of the same. So, like, I feel like maybe you could see it earlier on in my career: If there was something that was not right in my personal life, you could kind of see it in my playing,” Osaka answered, shortly before the start of the last tournament she will play for who knows how long.

“So it would be really cool if I could draw that line and be able to be like a robot Superman that could go on the court, focus just on tennis. But, no, I’m the type that kind of focuses on everything at one time,” she said. “That’s why, like, everything is sort of muddled to me.”

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Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Follow him at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich or write to him at hfendrich@ap.org

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More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Analysis: Osaka should take whatever time off she needs