By Jane Voigt
Naomi Osaka is loved. By any measure from social media to corporate sponsorships to raw tennis ability she has taken the world under her wings and given us a thrilling experience of human potential while revealing vulnerabilities that sadden the most ardent fans and make others doubt her existence in sport.
Now, though, she must think only of herself.
“Recently, when I win I don’t feel happy; I fell more like a relief,” she said in her press conference that followed her third-round loss to 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez a few days ago at The US Open. “And, when I lose I feel very sad.”
At that point she teared up because she sensed the vulnerability of her own words. “I don’t think that’s normal,” she admitted.
These reactions from a loss at a Grand Slam are not out of the ordinary, if viewed by themselves. They become uncomfortable and reactionary when we compare her and her situation with the hundreds of tennis stars that have come before her and have handled their individual situations as if, yes, this stings, but I’ll brush myself off, get back up and do it all over again in a couple days. That’s not in Osaka’s script; and, it shouldn’t be because that’s not Osaka.
The 23-year-old woman who in 2020 earned $55 million in endorsements, breaking her own record of $37 million in earning from the previous year, who wears on Arthur Ashe Stadium Court seven masks of seven victims of racial violence and profiling, over her seven-round victories to the women’s singles championship title at the 2020 U.S. Open is not hiding behind those masks or hiding behind the tears of two days past. No, instead, she is so completely aware of where she is, which is so far out in front, and how she sees the world that it overwhelms her. She feels these moments deeply. She is the change agent. Luckily for us – media, sponsors, tours – we witness them.
For Osaka to proceed unencumbered from our pressures, we must step up and grant her leave. In other words, we need to say goodbye, which clearly says we forgive her for whatever forms of mental bondage she has wrapped around herself. They are all okay. She is okay. Time to stop helping others, like the victims of racial unjust. It’s time to help herself.
Letting go of her, hopefully for only a short length of time, means no more tour tennis. No more sponsorship obligations. No more limelight, like magazine covers and personal profiles. No more questions from the press that seem to drive her to examine herself in such detail that she breaks down, a mess of conflicting thoughts and possible solutions that preclude her from honestly dealing with her life as it presents itself now. Without her departure from tennis, she probably won’t be able to relax for a single moment due, perhaps, to her own expectations of perfection on all life’s fronts.
“I’m at this point that I’m trying to figure out what I want to do and honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next match,” she said, her hands to her face as if a wall to stop the tears.
Her final gesture at that press conference was a thumbs up, an eternal sign of hope yet with an added caveat her expression revealed: the sadness that for right now should signal caution. “I feel anxious when things are going my way and I feel like you can feel that,” she said. “I’m not sure why that happens now.”
Osaka is a woman who needs answers to steady her career, as big as it is we can probably all understand, if only a little, the enormity of her challenge. It is a challenge better handled behind closed doors.