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Column: Naomi Osaka needs break again after U.S. Open loss; here’s hoping for her happiness

Naomi Osaka reacts during her 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 loss to Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Naomi Osaka reacts during her 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 loss to Leylah Fernandez in the third round of the U.S. Open. Afterward, a tearful Osaka said she would take another break from tennis to deal with mental health issues.
(Elsa Garrison / Getty Images)

An exhilarating day that included upset wins by 18-year-olds Leylah Fernandez and Carlos Alcaraz turned sad when a tearful Naomi Osaka said she will take a break from tennis to deal with the mental health issues that previously led her to pull out of the French Open and skip Wimbledon.

Osaka, the No. 3 seed and defending U.S. Open champion, threw her racket and couldn’t hide her frustration as Fernandez came back for a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 third-round victory Friday night. During a news conference, Osaka apologized for her childlike behavior but suggested it reflected her ongoing problems.

“Normally, I feel like I like challenges. 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,” said Osaka, who earlier this year acknowledged she has battled depression since she won the U.S. Open in 2018.

Naomi Osaka revealing her struggles with depression and anxiety shows why her decision to withdraw from the French Open deserves understanding.

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Responding in English to a question posed in Japanese, she added: “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. I didn’t really want to cry, but basically I feel like ...” She teared up but insisted on continuing.

“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 said, again tearing up. “Sorry. OK, yeah. I think I’m going to take a break from playing for a while.”

Leylah Fernandez reacts during a match against Naomi Osaka on Sept. 3, 2021, in New York.
Leylah Fernandez, 18, of Canada celebrates during her third-round win over third-seeded Naomi Osaka.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Fernandez, a left-hander, was born in Montreal but trains in Florida. She was fearless against Osaka, who was rested but not match-sharp after advancing by a walkover in the second round. “From the very beginning, right before the match, I knew I was able to win,” said Fernandez, who’s ranked 73rd in the world. “I wanted to put on a show for everybody here.”

She and Alcaraz turned Friday into Teen Spirit Day at Arthur Ashe Stadium, disrespecting their elders with their precocious performances. If they’re the future of tennis, as their skills and poise promise, it will be easier to bear the fadeouts of the beloved but aging champions who have carried the sport for so long and so well.

Alcaraz staged the first shocker of the day with a 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (2), 0-6, 7-6 (5) decision over No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece. At the end, Alcaraz dropped onto his back on the blue court and soaked in the ovation from fans who quickly took to his aggressive game and resilience.

“I have not words to explain how I am feeling right now,” he said. “I just don’t know what happened out there in the court. I can’t believe that I beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in an epic match. For me it’s a dream come true.”

Ranked 55th in the world, Alcaraz drew wide notice earlier this year when he reached the third round of the French Open as a qualifier. He was the youngest player to reach the third round of a major tournament since Rafael Nadal did so at the 2004 Australian Open at 17.

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Stefanos Tsitsipas, top, walks to the net after losing to Carlos Alcaraz during the third round of the U.S. Open.
Third-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas, top, walks to the net after losing to Carlos Alcaraz, foreground, in five sets during the third round of the U.S. Open.
(Frank Franklin II / Associated Press)

Though his reputation has grown, Alcaraz caught Tsitsipas off guard in the first set. “Ball speed was incredible. I’ve never seen someone hit the ball so hard,” said Tsitsipas, who received a time violation warning and a coaching warning but didn’t take any of the lengthy bathroom breaks that have triggered scorn from some of his peers.

Alcaraz plays aggressively but is able to control his emotions under pressure: He is 3-0 in tiebreakers here. “I have never seen someone play such a good fifth set, honestly,” Tsitsipas said. “It was supposed to be my match. Today was a match that I shouldn’t have lost.”

Alcaraz requested attention from a trainer after the fourth set and got a massage on his right thigh, though he said he hadn’t been injured or experiencing cramps. “I felt physically in my limit, I think, at the end of the third set,” Alcaraz said. Yet, he bounced back to keep the fifth set on serve and won on his third match point.

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Naomi Osaka won her opening match at the U.S. Open, and she is still finding her way forward as she sheds the doubts that affected her mental well-being.

Rarely has the third round of a Grand Slam tournament produced so much dazzling play. “Every match is a semifinal,” No. 12 seed Simona Halep said after she defeated No. 19 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan 7-6 (11), 4-6, 6-3.

The draw also brought together a pair of two-time Grand Slam singles winners who have been ranked No. 1 in the world.

Naomi Osaka returns a shot to Leylah Fernandez during the third round of the U.S. Open on Sept. 3, 2021.
Naomi Osaka, who won the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2020, returns a shot to Leylah Fernandez on Friday night.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)
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In that one, Garbine Muguruza of Spain outlasted Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. In another matchup of Grand Slam title holders, 2016 U.S. Open champion Angelique Kerber defeated 2017 champion Sloane Stephens, 5-7, 6-2, 6-3. Kerber, who has won 17 of her last 19 matches, will face Fernandez on Sunday in the round of 16.

Osaka’s U.S. Open is over. Here’s hoping she gets the help she needs to be happy and secure again regardless of whether that includes a return to tennis.


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