A report by Liz Clarke for The Washington Post.
Fighting back tears, four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said after her third-round defeat at the U.S. Open on Friday that she is thinking of taking a break from competition.
“I feel like for me recently, like, when I win, I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief,” said Osaka, 23, pausing to compose her thoughts and emotions during a brief news conference that followed her three-set loss to 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez. “And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal. I didn’t really want to cry, but basically I feel like …”
As Osaka teared up, the moderator moved to halt the news conference, but she interrupted to say, “I kind of want to finish this.”
She continued, acknowledging that the feelings she wanted to share were difficult to articulate.
“Basically, I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do,” Osaka said, speaking to a room with a few dozen masked journalists and a screen showing the faces of others participating via Zoom. “I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match.”The U.S. Open marked Osaka’s return to Grand Slam competition after a nearly three-month hiatus to address her mental health and spend time with family following her May 31 withdrawal from the French Open.
She had announced via social media that she wouldn’t take part in the obligatory French Open post-match interviews to safeguard her mental health. After being fined and threatened with disqualification for skipping her first required interview, Osaka withdrew from the tournament, then also skipped Wimbledon.
With an eye toward preparing for the U.S. Open, where she was a two-time and defending champion, Osaka entered a tuneup event in Cincinnati. And on the eve of the U.S. Open, she wrote an Instagram post about having adopted a more positive, constructive mind-set in which she vowed to be less critical of her herself and celebrate her successes.
Friday’s match, which Fernandez won 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, revealed an uncharacteristic side of the soft-spoken champion, whose on-court comportment has been impeccable, regardless of the pressure.
After failing to serve out the match in the second set, Osaka piled one error atop another in the tiebreaker that followed. As her game unraveled, so did Osaka’s emotions.
In uncharacteristic fashion, she struck her racket frame on the court. After another error, she tossed her racket, then bashed it. The chair umpire chose not to issue a warning, which would have been expected under the rule book.
“I’m really sorry about that,” Osaka said about the incidents during her news conference. “I’m not really sure why …. I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point.
“Like normally I feel like I like challenges. But recently I feel very anxious when things don’t go my way, and I feel like you can feel that. I’m not really sure why it happens the way it happens now … You could kind of see that. I was kind of like a little kid.”
After Fernandez claimed the tiebreaker to force a third set, Osaka left the court for a permissible break. She returned a few minutes later with a towel over her head and shrouding most of her face. She apologized for her behavior to the chair umpire, according to ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez, who was courtside.
Although she played better in the third set, Osaka failed to slow Fernandez’s momentum or shake the teenager’s belief.