Tennis gets mental health wake-up call – News

When cries for help go unheeded, some like Naomi Osaka take a break while others like Barty take things to the extreme and retire.

Ashley Barty

Published: Wed 23 Mar 2022, 11:16 PM

The seemingly endless demands of modern sport and the industry that drives it often put tremendous stress on top professionals at the top of their game. Many realize late in their careers that it’s easier to get to the top than to stay there. However, for some like Ashleigh Barty, the best tennis player in the world, this realization came quite early, when she is at the top of her game. The Australian, 25, announced on Wednesday that she had achieved what she had planned to do and had walked off the pitch for good. She closed the door on returns and said she was “exhausted.” She may not be the first tennis star to quit early, but she’s certainly the youngest. Justine Henin was 26, as was men’s champion Bjorn Borg. They returned to court later to falter, and their best was soon forgotten. Friends, foes and fellow players reacted with shock, dismay and relief at Barty’s decision, but the player did what was best for her life. A star who could have become one of the GOATs, or the greatest of all time, retired in tears. So what made Barty bow out? The competition is intense, the schedule is packed with back-to-back tournaments, and the advertisers want a piece of the pie. There are endorsements and shoots for different brands. Tight travel schedules, living without suitcases and away from families affect emotional health. Playing in different time zones hurts sleep. There are PR requests to fulfill and social media status to update. It’s a jungle out there.

Everyone has a review or comment, even though many fans and critics haven’t set foot in the field or gotten into a run. Yet careers are dissected and destroyed by pundits, journalists, organizers, and paying and non-paying audiences. Result: increased breakdowns and mental distress in athletes. When cries for help go unheeded, some like Naomi Osaka take a break while others like Barty take things to the extreme and retire. What the sports industry often forgets is that sports stars are first and foremost humans, fragile and vulnerable. The physical demands of performing at your best on the court or in the field can put a strain on the mind. Mental health is becoming as important to sports professionals as physical fitness before a major.

Perfection is a demand they cannot meet. The body cannot bear it, nor the spirit. The pandemic hasn’t helped sports bubbles become the norm until recently when restrictions were eased to make room for more spectators. It’s show time for most sportsmen, every time they make an appearance. They are expected to perform at their best and be role models for fans who can be fickle and are quick to spot flaws, off the pitch and on the pitch. The solution: the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the two bodies that govern the sport should reduce the number of tournaments to save tennis and its stars. The WTA holds 50 tournaments and four Grand Slam tournaments, while ATP events number 70 and four Grand Slam tournaments. A rescheduling of the schedule is essential to avoid burnout among top players. Barty will be missed but his shock retirement is a wake-up call.

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