Naomi Osaka returned to the US Open — the site of some of the tennis star’s greatest triumphs on a court and some difficult moments off it — for the first time in about a year to participate in a panel about mental health in sports, a topic she helped focus a spotlight on two years ago.
“For me coming back here, it means a lot. This room, in particular. There were some tears shed. A lot,” Osaka, who won two of her four major championships at Flushing Meadows, said with a chuckle in the Grand Slam tournament’s main interview room.
“I feel a lot of joy coming back here. It’s kind of like seeing an old friend I haven’t seen in a long time.” Wednesday’s gathering, which also included Michael Phelps, a 23-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, touched on topics such as loneliness, connecting with others via a “buddy system,” the role of social media in mental health struggles and parenting.
Osaka is a 25-year-old who was born in Japan and moved to the United States with her parents when she was 3. She recently gave birth to a daughter and hasn’t competed on tour since an event in Tokyo in September 2022, shortly after she lost in the first round of the US Open.
The former No. 1-ranked player has said she intends to return to action at the Australian Open next January.
“It’s definitely been really interesting. The whole process. It felt long and short at the same time. When I stepped away … I just remember watching the Australian Open and being very devastated, because I’ve never missed an Australian Open,” said Osaka, who won that major twice, too.
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“I was just thinking when I was watching Serena and Venus (Williams), I was thinking, I probably, no way, will ever play at their age.’ But sitting here, I’m like, No, you know what? I might do that.’” Osaka revealed her issues with depression and anxiety when she withdrew from the French Open in 2021. She later took extended breaks from the game to protect her mental health.
Her latest time away “really raised my love for the sport and it made me realize I’m not going to play forever. I have to embrace the times. I’ve been playing tennis since I was 3,” she said. “I don’t think I can predict what I’ll do — I never am able to do that — but it definitely made me appreciate a lot of things that I took for granted.” Osaka, who also spent time watching tennis Wednesday, spoke about how she “felt lonely” during her pregnancy.
Phelps discussed a “breaking point” nearly 10 years ago, “where I didn’t want to be alive.” “I literally didn’t talk about anything I was going through with my own family for 10 years and then it just — I was a volcano that erupted,” Phelps said. “Instead of talking about it, I just let it build.”