Tennis gets a wake-up call on mental health

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

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Ashleigh Barty
Ashleigh Barty

Published: Wed 23 Mar 2022, 11:16 PM

The seemingly endless demands of modern sport and the industry that drives it often put enormous stress on the leading professionals at the top of their game. Many realise late in their careers that it is easier to get to the pinnacle than remaining there. However, for some like Ashleigh Barty, the top woman’s tennis player in the world, this realisation has come rather early, when she is at the peak of her game. The Australian, all of 25, on Wednesday announced that she had achieved what she had set out to do and walked off court for good. She shut the door on comebacks and said she’s ‘spent’. She may not be the first tennis star to quit early but she is certainly the youngest. Justine Henin was 26, so was men’s champion Bjorn Borg. They returned to court later only to falter, and their best was soon forgotten. Friends, foes, and fellow players responded with shock, dismay and relief at Barty’s decision, but the player has done what’s best for her life. A star who could have gone on to become one of the GOATs, or the greatest of all time, has bowed out in tears. So, what may have pushed Barty to bow out? The competition is intense, the calendar is packed with back-to-back tournaments and advertisers want a slice of the pie. There are endorsements and shoots for various brands. Tight travel schedules, living out of suitcases and away from families harm emotional health. Playing in different time zones takes a toll on sleep. There are PR demands to meet and social media status to update. It’s a jungle out there.

Everyone has a criticism or comment, though many fans and critics haven’t set foot on court or broken into a run. Yet, careers are dissected and destroyed by experts, journalists, organisers, and the paying and non-paying public. The result: rising breakdowns and mental distress among sportspersons. When calls for help go unheeded, some like Naomi Osaka take a break while others like Barty take it to the extreme and retire. What the sports industry often forgets is that sports stars are humans after all, fragile and vulnerable. The physical demands of giving off one’s best on court or on the field can put a strain on the mind. Mental health is becoming as important to sporting professionals as being physically fit before a major.

Perfection is a demand they cannot meet. The body can’t take it, nor can the mind. The pandemic hasn’t helped with sporting bubbles being the norm until recently when restrictions were eased to allow room for more spectators. It’s showtime for most sportspersons, every time they make an appearance. They are expected to be on their best behaviour and role models to fans who can fickle and are quick to pick at flaws, off court and on it. The solution: the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the two bodies that govern the sport should cut the number of tournaments to save tennis and its stars. The WTA holds 50 tournaments and four Grand Slams, while ATP events number 70 and four Slams. A rescheduling of the calendar is vital to prevent burnouts among top players. Barty will be missed but her shock retirement is a wake-up call.

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