Tennis players discuss mental health issues raised by Osaka

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WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Naomi Osaka was not the first professional tennis player to withdraw during a Grand Slam tournament because of mental health concerns — and she likely won’t be the last.

Others just might not always be as up-front as Osaka was.

“There have been plenty of players that have had some mental health issues, whether you know it or not,” said U.S. Davis Cup captain Mardy Fish, who pulled out of the 2012 U.S. Open when he had a panic attack before he was supposed to face Roger Federer. "I have spoken to many players over the last eight or nine years that you’ve heard of ... that have struggled with that type of stuff."

In video or telephone interviews during Wimbledon, which ends Sunday, and the French Open, which finished in June, current and former players said they think their sport might be particularly prone to issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

It is, after all, mostly a solo sport with an itinerant lifestyle, no guaranteed salary and the constant thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down (usually the latter, of course, for most players) judgments based on results and rankings.

There aren’t teammates to rely on. There aren’t days off for “load management.” Players can’t even get in-match coaching at most tournaments.

“If you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, if you don’t feel well, there’s no, ‘Hey, I’m not going to play this game today,’” said Fish, who reached No. 7 in the rankings, made three Slam quarterfinals and won an Olympic silver medal. “And you’ve got to trek it all by yourself.”

It’s been amplified lately because of the pandemic.

“I keep a lot of things to myself, and over time, it can just create a big snowball. And then, at one point, you just kind of explode, and you’re like, ‘Whoa. Were did that come from?’" said Jennifer Brady, a 26-year-old from Pennsylvania who was the runner-up to Osaka at the Australian Open.

Osaka, who has won four Grand Slam titles, brought attention to the topic in late May, when she pulled out of the French Open before the second round, saying she has “huge waves of anxiety” before speaking to the media and that she has “suffered long bouts of depression.” She also sat out Wimbledon; she'll her return for the Olympics.

Hers is not an isolated example, and this sort of thing is not limited to tennis. Athletes in various sports have discussed their own experiences, including Olympians Michael Phelps and Gracie Gold, the NFL’s Dak Prescott, the NBA’s Kevin Love and NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace.

“We’ve been talking about this forever,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, vice president of mental health and wellness for the WTA, the women’s tennis tour. “Any time an athlete shares with us, or shares with the world, their experience, we can learn something from it, especially if we’re listening. And we certainly are listening.”

At Wimbledon, and most tournaments, the WTA provides an on-site clinician so players can request 30- or 60-minute sessions. Also offered any day, any time: video or phone conversations.

The WTA’s all-around wellness program started in the 1990s. Last year, the ATP men’s tour announced a partnership with a company offering access to therapists.

Some players travel with their own mental coach. Others speak regularly or occasionally with one.

Still others say they seek out a conversation with someone they know well, such as a coach or a personal trainer.

“I’m somebody who has dealt with anxiety since my father’s passing, to the point where I couldn’t leave the house. ... But I got help,” said Steve Johnson, a 31-year-old from California who was the 2011-12 NCAA singles champion for USC. “I talk to a therapist quite frequently. It’s not weakness. You have no idea what somebody is going through unless you ask them.”

Whether the concerns are personal or professional, they exist, as in any walk of life.

It’s why last year’s French Open champion, Iga Swiatek, travels with a sports psychologist. It’s why this year’s French Open champion, Barbora Krejcikova, needed her psychologist to talk her out of a panic attack that left her afraid to leave the locker room.

“There’s a lot of pressure. I felt it when I was No. 20 in the world. I felt it when I broke my ankle and came back and I had (ranking) points to defend and people expected me to have the same results as before and I wasn’t,” said Mihaela Buzarnescu, a 33-year-old player from Romania.

Jamie Murray, a 35-year-old from Scotland with five Grand Slam titles in men’s or mixed doubles and older brother of three-time major champion Andy, says the restrictions set because of the pandemic have worn on him.

“We’ve basically just gone from bubble to bubble to bubble, all around the world. And there’s no getting away from tennis. You play a match, let’s say your lose -- it’s all harder when you’re losing -- you go back to the hotel. Small hotel room, four walls. Sometimes you don’t have fresh air, because you can’t open your windows. And you’re just sitting there. And the match is just here, like this,” Murray said, his hand in front of his face.

During Wimbledon, all players stayed in one hotel, instead of being able to rent private houses to stay with family or friends. British players could not stay at home. No one can leave the hotel at all, other than to travel to the tournament site.

In Paris, players were allowed one hour of free time per day. At the Australian Open in February, players couldn’t leave their hotel rooms at all for two weeks if someone on their flight tested positive for COVID-19.

“This is a fragile time in everyone’s life. This bubble stuff — you can’t factor in how much it weighs on each person,” said Reilly Opelka, a 23-year-old who is the highest-ranked U.S. man. “When you’re in a bad frame of mind, it can get dark and it’s scary. It really is. It’s scary.”

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press

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