The Breaking Point for Naomi Osaka

Osaka’s devastating loss in the third round of the US Open has her questioning her future in tennis.

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By Emily Lu

Outquotes: It was when Osaka slammed her racket onto the ground during the second set tiebreak that fans realized something was wrong.

An unseeded 18-year-old seemed like no match for reigning U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka, which is quite possibly the reason why Osaka’s loss was so heartbreaking––both for herself and so many tennis fans across the globe. Initially, Osaka seemed to have a year of opportunity and success ahead of her in 2021. However, this year has consisted of little else but disappointment for her both on and off the court, with this U.S. Open loss being only the latest in a series of letdowns.

Osaka rose as a major player around two years ago, young and unafraid to use her voice, particularly for the Black Lives Matter movement. Her success in tennis has even led her to mainstream fame as she co-hosted the Met Gala with other young stars just this month. However, it seems Osaka has been suffering from the constant pressure put upon her as of late and wants to begin to prioritize her mental well-being.

After winning her first two matches of the U.S. Open tournament, Osaka’s next opponent was Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez. Osaka was highly expected to best the teen and progress to the Round of 16. In the first set, it seemed that expectation would come to fruition as Osaka played both aggressively and with composure, beating Fernandez 7-5. Osaka’s playing remained steady throughout the majority of her second set. However, a surge from Fernandez tied the two women up at six games apiece, leading Osaka to be thrown off of her game.

It was when Osaka slammed her racket onto the ground during the second set tiebreak that fans realized something was wrong. Clearly losing confidence and becoming agitated, Osaka made a slew of unforced errors, resulting in Fernandez dominating the tiebreaker 7-2 and making the third set win or go home for both women. Osaka made almost no attempt to hide her frustration, even letting out a couple aggravated screams as she increasingly made mistakes.

Osaka’s luck continued to worsen in the third set. Fernandez pulled out to an early lead while Osaka struggled more and more, even hitting the ball high into the stands once and receiving a warning from the chair umpire. Ultimately, Osaka’s series of mishaps culminated in a loss, and she left empty-handed from the Open that she was once so victorious in.

In the past, Osaka rarely lost focus on the game and the victory in front of her. Showcasing the opposite behavior in this game, she even said that her attitude was similar to that of “a little kid.” She apologized for this conduct, saying that her anxiety has changed her mentality in the game, specifically when she’s up for challenges. On the other hand, Fernandez came out of the match with confidence that she could win, which was evident throughout each set, regardless of Osaka’s behavior or the score of the match. The teenager’s focus saw her all the way through to the finals, where she was defeated by Emma Raducanu, another young, rising tennis star.

In addition to apologizing for her out-of-character actions during the game, Osaka shocked tennis followers everywhere during a post-game press conference when she said, “I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.” She went on to discuss the pressures of the game, mentioning how winning no longer brought her joy––simply relief––and losing brought her great frustration. Her speech left many fans scared that she was indicating an early retirement from the game altogether. While Osaka was in tears, the moderator attempted to end the conference, but she was adamant about getting her feelings about her future out into the open. Osaka has consistently advocated for mental health awareness, even stepping out of the French Open to take some healing time for herself. She wanted to let the world know that she was struggling, which took an incredible amount of strength and helped to let fans know they were not struggling alone.

While it would be devastating for the game of tennis to lose Osaka, it must be acknowledged that athletes remain real people with real feelings, feelings that, if strong enough, may lead them to take a hiatus from or even leave their sports.