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Naomi Osaka signals break from tennis after US Open defeat

2021 US Open Tennis tournament: Japan

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The two-time U.S. Open champion didn’t say when she might return to the circuit after losing to 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez.

The most turbulent season of Naomi Osaka’s short career came to an abrupt close on Friday night as she lost in the third round of the U.S. Open before casting doubt on her future in the game.

Osaka, a two-time champion in New York, was making her first Grand Slam appearance since withdrawing from the French Open in the spring, citing mental health concerns. But her form suffered through the season, and she never found her rhythm during the 7-5, 6-7 (2), 4-6 loss to 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez inside Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Osaka then indicated that she would be stepping away from the sport for a time. The 23-year-old had previously explained that she suffered regular bouts of depression ever since winning her first U.S. Open title at age 20.

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“How do I go around saying this?” a tearful Osaka said in her post-match news conference. “I feel like for me recently, like, when I win I don’t feel happy. I feel more like a relief. And then when I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”

“Basically I feel like I’m kind of at this point where I’m trying to figure out what I want to do, and I honestly don’t know when I’m going to play my next tennis match,” she added. “I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”

Osaka’s personal struggles this season have played out in public ever since she said in Paris that she would be skipping her media duties, because they caused her undue stress. That incident escalated when the major tournaments levied hefty fines on her. It culminated in her withdrawal from Roland-Garros before her second-round match there.

The highest paid female athlete in the world last year, Osaka later skipped Wimbledon and didn’t return to the circuit until the Olympics in Tokyo. As Japan’s most prominent global athlete, she was tapped to light the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony. At the time she called it, ​“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honor I will ever have in my life.”

But she exited the Olympics after a third-round upset where she said she didn’t know how to cope with the pressure. In the space of a season, she went from being the new face of women’s tennis and the Tokyo Games to being the face of the mental health conversation in sports. The spotlight on her never dimmed.

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On Friday night, Osaka played far below the standards that have made her the best hardcourt player in women’s tennis in recent years. At her best, she would have made light work of Fernandez, who is ranked No. 73 in the world. Yet here, Osaka’s first serve fell apart and her temper got the best of her. She slammed her racket to the court twice in the second set.

“I’m really sorry about that. I’m not really sure why,” Osaka said later. “I was telling myself to be calm, but I feel like maybe there was a boiling point.”

“Normally I feel like I like challenges,” she added. “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.”

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