Naomi Osaka had not brought any racquets with her when she arrived at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Wednesday afternoon. Osaka had no intention of playing tennis.
“To me, coming back here means a lot,” said four-time Grand Slam singles champion Osaka. “It’s like seeing an old friend you haven’t seen for a long time.”
Osaka was speaking in the main press conference room at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Wednesday. She knows it well. It’s where she’s been able to answer questions from reporters on some of her best occasions, like her US Open championships in 2018 and 2020. It’s also where she’s been in tough times, including a first-round elimination from last year’s tournament.
“Tears flowed,” Osaka said of the piece. “A lot.”
On Wednesday, Osaka was back for a panel with Michael Phelps, the American swimmer who is the most decorated Olympian of all time; Dr. Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General; and Dr. Brian Hainline, NCAA Chief Medical Officer and Chairman of the Board of the United States Tennis Association.
The panel’s topic, mental health and sport, is one Osaka has spoken about often since she spoke about mental health issues when she retired from Roland Garros in 2021. Her outing then led to a hiatus. tennis.
Osaka, who turned professional in 2013 as a teenager and became the heir apparent to Serena Williams, is now also away from tennis. In January, she announced she was pregnant but was planning to play at the 2024 Australian Open. She gave birth to her daughter in July, calling it on Instagram a “cool little intermission.”
On Wednesday, Osaka, 25, said she had had plenty of time to reflect during her last stop from the sport.
“It definitely made me appreciate a lot of things that I took for granted,” she said.
Osaka did not say when she planned to return to tennis during the panel, but later told ESPN in an interview that she intended to play in 2024, adding that she had been training and that she should be hitting balls soon.
Speaking in this room, Osaka hinted at the idea of having a long career.
“I just remember watching the Australian Open and being very devastated because I had never missed an Australian Open,” Osaka said. But as she watched, Osaka said, she thought about Serena and Venus Williams’ career endings.
Serena Williams, who retired at the US Open last year, played until she was 40. Venus Williams, 43, took part in this year’s tournament, losing in the first round of singles.
“I thought I would probably never play at their age,” Osaka said. “But sitting here, I’m like, you know what? I could do that.
Osaka said the pregnancy gave her a lot of time to reflect and she sometimes felt isolated. She had to force herself to ask for help.
“I actually felt lonely during my pregnancy just because I felt like I couldn’t do a lot of things,” she said.
She added: “Normally I think, ‘If I want to be an independent woman, then I won’t ask anyone for help.’ Whenever something happens, take it by the chin. But then I got to a point where I had to ask for help.
For decades, many athletes have been reluctant to share their mental health issues. This is especially true for professionals, whose jobs require them to push their bodies to perform at the highest level. But in recent years, athletes have gradually become more open to discussing mental health. Besides Osaka, they include gymnast Simone Biles, basketball star Kevin Love and, in tennis, Amanda Anisimova, the once-top-25 American youngster who in May cited mental health issues in deciding whether to get away from sports.
Among Olympians, Phelps has also led a campaign to speak out on mental health.
Phelps, who has also struggled with mental health issues, said like Osaka, solving those issues meant realizing that he needed to reach out and ask for help.
“I learned that I couldn’t do it all on my own,” Phelps said.
After winning six gold medals at the Athens Games in 2004, Phelps went into what he described as a “post-Olympic depression”. But instead of asking someone for help, Phelps said, he compartmentalized his problems by swimming and training more.
It wasn’t until around 2014, Phelps said, that he reached a “breaking point.”
“I decided something had to change,” he said. “So for me, I had to become vulnerable for the first time in my life.
Although Osaka hasn’t said exactly when she will play again, when she returns the hardships of life on tour will follow, such as time away from her family and the pressure of competing in an individualistic sport. But this time, Osaka said she would be more comfortable asking for help when she needed it.
Osaka said she has two friends she relies on when dealing with loneliness.
“I know I can contact them anytime and I think that’s really important,” she said. “You are not alone in anything.”