Shining the spotlight on mental health in tennis - by Saul Shrom
On the beautifully manicured courts of Wimbledon each summer, the shining image of tennis is on display. Superstars like Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic grace the crowd with their athletic prowess and earn significant financial rewards from the tournament, as well as through sponsorship deals from some of the world’s most recognized brands. However, this illusion contrasts starkly from the lived experience reality of most professional players.
Bringing this issue to light, Naomi Osaka, one of tennis’ brightest young talents and current world number 2, recently discussed her struggles with depression and anxiety when informing the French Open of her decision to skip media requirements to protect her mental health. Despite warning the tournament in advance, she was later fined $15,000 for not taking part in post-match interviews. Osaka’s decision to withdraw from the tournament and the social media discussions that followed has opened the door for a discussion on mental health within tennis, which has to date been largely understudied. We do not have enough research evidence on the challenges of the professional tour lifestyle and the impact it has on players’ mental health.
My research aims to provide evidence to base policy development and to enable coaches, sport psychologists and other player support networks to support players in their professional journeys. I have been exploring this as part of my PhD and discuss here key findings from this research.
The Financial Reality of Pro Tennis
Contrary to assumptions that professional tennis players are wealthy, the reality is that most professional players struggle financially. Research has illustrated that only 1.8% of male and 3.1% of female professional players earned a profit in 2013, with 60% and 51% of the prize money distributed on the men’s and women’s tours, respectively, being earned by the top 1% of players.
Unlike team sports like football or basketball where players sign contracts, earn salaries and are provided with coaches, support staff and equipment, tennis is an individual sport in which players have the personal responsibility of constructing and covering the costs of their own teams and relying on prize money to earn an income instead of the security of salaries.
Although Grand Slam events (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open) provide substantial pay days for players, the lower levels of the professional tour offer considerably less prize money (see blog https://jamesmcgeetennis.com/2013/06/24/financing-the-tour/). This creates enduring financial instability for a majority of professional players, which hangs like a dark cloud over their long-term feasibility within the game. This may not be felt by players at the top of the sport, like Osaka, but nonetheless the similar symptoms of anxiety are experienced and echoed throughout much of the professional tour.
With tournaments offered worldwide during 51 of the 52 weeks of the year and the incentives to play to earn prize money and move up the rankings, players live a nomadic lifestyle that brings with it unique challenges. It is not uncommon for players to spend no more than a week or two in a set location throughout the entire year. Instead, they face changing time zones, different court surfaces, new cultures, languages, foods and surroundings as they continually move place to place.
The impact of this lifestyle on professional players is two-fold. First, players experience physical and mental fatigue from their relentless traveling schedules. The continual movement and adjustments accumulate over time leaving players fatigued. Second, they also experience difficulty maintaining relationships and loneliness. Being away from home so regularly and missing friends’ and families’ birthdays, graduations, weddings and other important life events makes it difficult to remain connected to their support networks.
In fact, in Osaka’s withdrawal announcement from Wimbledon this year, her agent noted “she is taking some personal time with friends and family”, as a way to protect her mental health before returning to the professional tour.
The Weight of Expectation
The significant financial and lifestyle sacrifices made by players on the professional tour magnifies the pressures they place on themselves to succeed. This is further exasperated by a ranking system that removes ranking points from more than a year prior meaning that players must consistently perform to maintain their position within the professional system. This puts pressure on players to stay healthy, as injuries or time away from the sport means their place within the professional game is threatened.
For this reason, Osaka’s withdrawals from big tournaments like the French Open and Wimbledon are a big deal. While her place in the professional game is not under threat (with her world number 2 ranking), these grand slams represent key opportunities for her to compete for grand slam titles and significant prize money. Her prioritization of mental health is a big wake up call for the tennis world.
What do these themes tell us that can help us inform tennis policy to protect players’ mental health?
My PhD research to date has explored the lifestyle challenges of professional tennis players and the impact these have on their sporting success and mental health. In my first study, I analysed online blog posts of 65 players’ self-reported experiences to illustrate how the lifestyle challenges of professional tennis inhibits players’ basic human needs. Not only does this impact players’ progression on tour, but also their mental health. Within this study, players detailed their experiences with depression, anxiety, panic disorders and eating disorders.
Findings from my research illuminating the specific challenges of the pro tennis tour are likely to offer lessons for other sports. Financial and lifestyle challenges and associated expectations of any elite athlete regardless of the sport impact their livelihood and mental health.
The strength Osaka has shown in taking a stand has started a crucial conversation on mental health within tennis, which has the ability to transcend into the whole world of sport. While lower-ranked professionals’ challenges may not stem from the media (like Osaka), numerous other stressors have been identified within professional tennis with implications on athletes’ mental health. With the spotlight Osaka has shined on mental health, now is as important of a time as ever to learn about the challenges that players face in their professional careers. With this knowledge, we can intervene and better protect players in our beautiful sport, and in doing so, relay these lessons to other sports.
This post was written by Saul Shrom, a final year PhD student in the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at the University of Birmingham. After briefly playing on the professional tennis tour, he has focused his attention since 2018 on better understanding the transitioning process into professional tennis.