Naomi Osaka won a Grand Slam title for the 4th time in her career less than seven months ago. At the age of 23, Osaka had passed a barrier in Australia – she was not only the world’s finest women’s tennis player but also on a road to becoming one of the greatest of all time.

Osaka, the third seed and reigning US Open champion lost a shocking third-round match Friday night to Leylah Fernandez, the world’s 73rd-ranked player. However, the most significant news came after the last ball was struck in Fernandez’s victory when Osaka said that she required a break from tennis for some time and had no idea when she would return.

Given what has occurred after Naomi Osaka won the Australian Open, we cannot rule out the possibility that the answer is never.

“Recently, when I win, I’m not overjoyed. I feel more relieved,” Osaka remarked, responding to a Japanese-language question at the conclusion of her press conference. “And then, when I lose, I’m devastated, which I don’t believe is natural. I didn’t want to weep, but I feel like…”

The moderator attempted to call an end to the press conference as her voice drifted off into a lengthy silence, but Osaka refused.

She said that in a nutshell, she feels like it is quite difficult to explain. Thus, I feel as if I’m at a crossroads, unsure of what I want to accomplish and, frankly, unsure of when I’ll be playing my next tennis match.”

With that, Osaka walked away from the US Open, flashing two thumbs up. Whether she is completely withdrawing from tennis now hangs over the sport till we hear from her again.

Osaka walked away from the US Open

However, even without complete knowledge of Osaka’s melancholy and mental health struggles over the past few years, it’s obvious that what occurred in 2021 cannot continue.

If tennis is the source of her difficulties, she should abandon it and pursue other interests. However, if tennis is to be a part of the solution, she must be a full-time player.

To see Osaka’s press conference, click here. Friday night provided insight into the challenges she has been facing. It was inconvenient. It was also enlightening. When questioned about breaking her racket and seeming generally angry and agitated after her failure to close off the match in the 2nd set, she said that she used to love being pushed on the court but has been nervous recently when things did not go her way.

At that point — just before she broke down and declared her retirement from tennis — the idea came to me that maybe the solution to many of her on-court problems was just to play more.

The truth of the sport that has sucked up so much of her talent in such a short period of time is that it is much too demanding to play at the top level on a part-time basis.

Following her victory at the Australian Open, Osaka was forthright about her desire to play a small number of tournaments throughout the year and concentrate on the Grand Slams and select a few other marquee events. That is a formula that great players usually use at their career end in order to maintain their bodies. They do not do that in their early age or mid-20s when they are attempting to maximize their physical peak.

After losing a series of matches on clay last spring, which followed the controversy at the French Open over her refusal to speak to the media, Osaka was sidelined until the Olympics, while her rivals plowed through tournaments throughout Europe. With so little tennis experience this year, it’s unsurprising that she failed to produce winning performances under duress.

Apart from any other mental health problems she may have, Osaka must come to terms with the fact that losing is not only acceptable but completely natural.

Ash Barty, who has ascended to the No. 1 rank this year, is having arguably the greatest season by a female tennis player since Serena Williams won Wimbledon and four other championships during her heyday. Additionally, she has lost 7 times in 2021 and had some really awful days. Roger Federer’s career is not defined by his 20 Grand Slam singles championships; it is defined by the 11 times he has lost in a final, which includes some heartbreaking defeats. That is what makes you human in tennis.

Only Osaka can determine if her melancholy and unease with the spotlight are compatible with professional tennis. Let us hope so, given her tremendous skill.

However, even if she never plays tennis again, she has already cemented her place among a small group of Grand Slam-winning female players. She owes us nothing. If she ultimately decides to pursue another endeavor, we can only admire what she has achieved and hope she finds pleasure elsewhere.

It was obvious in the aftermath of Friday night that Osaka would need to spend the next several weeks and months choosing how she wants her life to unfold. However, if losing a tennis match is the low point of her trip, she will ultimately find out how to make the rest of the game perfectly well.

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