Has Naomi Osaka simply fallen out of love with tennis?
The tennis season gets ready to crank back into action next week with the Australian Open, but it does so without Naomi Osaka – and tennis may have to get used to her not being around.
The Australian Open is generally replete with surprises, but Naomi Osaka pulling out of it was not one of them.
Osaka played just 11 tournaments in 2022, ditched Wimbledon openly admitting she couldn’t motivate herself for the most prestigious tournament in the world if there was no ranking points on offer, and quit the Tokyo Pan Pacific open after winning in the first round.
All in all, especially following her well-publicised struggles with mental health at the 2021 French Open, it’s painting the impression of someone who has fallen out of love with tennis.
It’s important that no one every attempt to diminish mental health struggles, and it’s clear Osaka has a lot to deal with there. We all wish her nothing but the best with that.
I’m just not sure it’s the reason she’s missing so much tennis, though. It appears she just doesn’t seem to love tennis quite enough.
Clearly the passion was there once. Simply put, it’s not possible to attain the level she has in anything, possibly least of all tennis, without a burning desire.
You certainly don’t get to win four Grand Slams unless you really, really want to.
However, the tennis life is also a very tough one, and it is that which Osaka appears to have fallen out of love with.
As her profile grew, so too did her riches. Osaka is the highest paid female athlete in the world, earning more than $57million in 2021 according to Forbes. To put that into perspective, the WTA world number one during that time, Ashleigh Barty was earning around $6.9million.
With those riches come opportunity, the kind of which we dream about. With most of her income coming from endorsements and her increasing investment portfolio, the necessity of tennis decreases. The greater opportunity then translates into one simple question: What life do you want? Opportunity and choice is, as they say, the ultimate revealer.
In Osaka’s case, the choice she had made about the life she wants does not appear to be the tennis life.
We are all a little guilty at times of convincing ourselves that elite sportsmen and women should be that good because of how much they are paid to do it. That’s just a lot of envy talking, though.
The reality is that it’s very easy for the money, or more so the opportunity that it brings, to become a demotivating factor and real test of a players love of their craft.
Osaka is not the only one to have struggled to pass that test. Tennis has seen it before with Eugenie Bouchard, who discovered very early in her career that she could make the same kind of money through her profile as she could through her tennis, and with a lot less work.
Tennis is not alone in it either. You can look at someone like footballer Dele Alli, so who achieved a lot very early in his career for Tottenham and England yet appeared to lose his motivation to maintain it.
And there is not really any shame in that. None of these sportspeople should be criticized for their choices. It’s not laziness or a bad attitude. They have proven themselves and their character simply by reaching the level they did. It’s just people making choices about their lives.
At this point, it’s tough to see how things might change for Naomi Osaka and tennis. Her troubles with anxiety and bouts of depression mean she legitimately dislikes constant travel, expectations and media duties, and those things are very tough to avoid if you’re a top tennis player.
It’s just a bit of a shame for tennis, as Osaka looked primed to be one of the stars to lead the women’s game after Serena Williams retired. The WTA will be fine, of course. It is rich in talent. It is just stronger engaged with Osaka, and that doesn’t look like happening any time soon.
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