By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, S.C., April 5, 2018 — Gone was the shy, smiley Naomi Osaka who lit up social media with sound bites that baffled and entertained us earlier this spring. Today, after her third-round loss to Julia Goerges, the 20-year-old phenom could hardly compose herself for ten minutes in her post-match press conference.
“I don’t know how to explain it, but like kind of depressed. It comes in waves,” Osaka said, straight faced to a silent room of reporters.
She was all too believable. You could feel her anguish and damn the fact that she’s young and inexperienced and probably will get over it in a day or two. Right then Osaka was as authentic about her feelings as one could get.
Yesterday, after beating Laura Siegemund, Osaka admitted her schedule this season demanded more: matches, rounds, press, sponsor involvement. That’s what happens when you win a Premier Mandatory, as Osaka did in Indian Wells. Her first-ever title. Now even her mind seems to want to retreat.
“I’m actually not really sure how to answer that question,” Osaka said, when asked if she was tired or out of energy. “I wouldn’t really know if it was because I played a lot of matches or something else because I’ve never been in the position. I do know that what I felt today was a new feeling, though.”
Canadian Rebecca Moran put her tennis career on hold for five years, beginning in 2013 when she admitted she was struggling with depression. She returned in February and won an International Tennis Federation tournament in Vancouver. “So happy and excited to be playing again,” she wrote on Twitter. Moran had reached a career-high ranking of 38 in 2011.
“Rebecca worked very hard to be ready to return to competition,” Sylvain Bruneau, Tennis Canada’s national women’s coach and Fed Cup captain, said, according to the CBC. “It’s not easy to come back after such a long time away. But she showed that her efforts in her training were well worth it. It’s just the first step, but this is obviously a very positive start.”
Osaka’s mood on court was not lost on Goerges, who won the match 7-6(3), 6-3.
“I saw that her body language changed in the second set,” Goerges began. “She was, I think, a little bit frustrated that she couldn’t take the opportunities she had in the first set and she really let me back in.”
Osaka didn’t need any reminder about Goerges’ skills. The German broke in to the top ten recently and led women in aces last year. When the second set was tied at 3-games all, Osaka pulled her visor down over her face and aggressively smacked the bottom of her tennis shoes, to get the clay out of the groves and to, what seemed like, beat herself up.
“I was thinking that I shouldn’t give up and that no matter what I should try to at least make it competitive and just, like, I shouldn’t give up,” Osaka said.
Goerges, who is 29 and has been on tour for over 13 years, wasn’t about to let Osaka’s mood affect her game, though. This is big-girl tennis and moods are there to exploit.
“I knew that she had a lot of matches,” Goerges began. “She just won a big title and I saw that mentally she was maybe a little bit tired, too, so I tried to take advantage of it and really just focus on myself and making life as tough as possible for her to not really give her any free points, that she had to work for every ball.”
Whether Osaka was, or is, clinically depressed before or during the match can’t be determined from one match or without professional counsel. But being in a new career situation and 20 and far away from family in Florida could be at the bottom of her current situation.
“I think she needs rest for her mind and body,” Psycho-therapist Diane Elayne Dees, L.C.S.W, told Down The Tee in an exclusive interview. “I noticed she didn’t talk with Sasha [Osaka’s coach] about her feelings and she needs to talk with at least one trusted person.”
Marino’s road to recovery came when she decided to seek help from mental health professionals. She is now a “mental health ambassador and a beacon for young people who struggle.” Finding someone who could relate to her anguish was a revelation.
Daria Kasatkina, also 20 and returning to Volvo Car Open as the defending champion, had a rough first match two days ago. It went three sets, she smashed the heck out a racquet and acted, well, like a frustrated 20-year-old. Today was different. She sailed through easily, defeating Irina-Camelia Begu, 6-2, 6-1.
“Yeah, today was much better than two days ago,” Kasatkina said. “I think I was almost flying. I was really stretched the first match, but I hope this pressure disappears.”
She admitted being stressed during that opening match, which was played Monday night. The Russian knows she has to learn how to deal with pressure. It’s complicated when expectations of more greatness surrounds her, like the 50-foot photographic portrait of herself on the side of the main stadium that anyone and everyone within a mile can see.
“I love to play night session, in front of all the crowd,” she continued. “But it was not about that because I was really stressed. Nobody told me it’s so difficult to come and defend a title. So I have to get used to it.”
Kasatkina’s stress didn’t linger, though. Monday night she ate and went to sleep, waking the next day without an emotional hangover. “In the head everything is fine.”
Osaka has a full schedule planned for the remainder of spring. Now, though, she doesn’t want to think about tennis.
“Nothing,” she said, when asked what she wanted to do before her next tournament. “I don’t want to think about other tournaments. Yeah. I’m sorry.”