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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Naomi Osaka is brave to recognize and talk about her own truth

Naomi Osaka throws her racket on the court

Naomi Osaka throws her racket on the court during her match against Leylah Fernandez during the third round of the U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Friday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

She tried, but she just can’t do it.

The biggest name in women’s professional tennis cannot play anymore. Naomi Osaka, 23, has decided to take a break. Maybe a long one.

After what we saw Friday night at the U.S. Open, Osaka should take as long as she needs. It doesn’t matter that she is the most popular player in tennis. It doesn’t matter that she is in the prime of her career. What matters is that she gets herself right.

In a painful, tear-filled news conference after her third-round loss to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez at the U.S. Open on Friday, Osaka basically said goodbye to the sport that has helped make her a major stage presence since winning her first Grand Slam here three years ago.

Osaka’s announcement came after she began crying and the news conference monitor tried to cut off the questioning.

"I kind of want to finish this," she said before taking several deep breaths and forging ahead. "This is very hard to articulate. Well, basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match. Sorry."

It was a stunning moment that the tennis world, and the sporting world in general, was still trying to process Saturday. How could a player who appears to have everything — fame, money, incredible talent, world popularity — be so unhappy? Why would she want to walk away from it all at the peak of her career?

The answer, of course, is complicated.

Mental illness does not discriminate. Male, female, old, young, rich, poor, famous and obscure. Mental illness is something that can happen to anyone at the most inopportune of times, which is something that was hammered home at the Olympics when gymnast Simone Biles decided to drop out of the all-around competition.

Yet, until Friday, Osaka’s situation somehow seemed different.

Her struggles were first presented to the public as a fear of news conferences. On the surface, it’s a lot easier to empathize with Biles’ fear that she could injure herself doing a twisting triple-double than Osaka’s fear that she might have to answer a question she didn’t like. During her on-the-court meltdown Friday, it became clear that Osaka’s struggles are far bigger than not wanting to deal with the media.

After withdrawing from the French Open and sitting out Wimbledon for mental-health reasons, Osaka had hoped to get her career back on track at the event where she had won two of her four major titles. Yet when things started to go Fernandez’s way, Osaka completely lost her composure. She slammed her racket to the court multiple times and walked off the court without telling the umpire after she lost the second-set tiebreaker.

"I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point," Osaka said. "Normally, I like challenges. But recently I feel anxious when things don’t go my way."

Fernandez played through it all with a calm confidence that was almost reminiscent of the composure Osaka showed four years ago when she won the U.S. Open title by beating her idol, Serena Williams, who was having a rough night.

In fact, listening to the bubbly Fernandez in her postgame news conference, it was hard not to think about her future, to contemplate just how fast things can change for young tennis stars.

Osaka’s life changed drastically after she beat Williams at the Open. She went from a budding young superstar to a money-printing industry. The $60 million Osaka made last year is more than any other woman athlete in history.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, Osaka is a Japanese citizen but was raised in the United States, which led to her racking up endorsement deals in two countries. She is interested in fashion. She is interested in social justice. She speaks her mind. She stands for something, which makes her very appealing to young fans and the advertisers who court them.

As incredible as this all is, it also sounds completely exhausting. Add to that the stress of being a sensitive young woman in a world buffeted by fires, floods, Supreme Court rulings and a pandemic, and it makes sense that she might want to take a protracted break.

Mental illness does not discriminate, but access to mental health support does. Osaka has the means to get the support she needs, and getting right has to be her top goal.

The bet here is she returns and then uses her platform to help others who are struggling.

In the meantime, tennis will miss her.

New York Sports