What does it take to get to the very top of world tennis?

GUEST POST BY TOM HASLAM

If you picked up a tennis racket for the first time when you were a child, and somebody asked you what do you want to be when you grow up?

Your answer would undoubtedly have been, ‘a professional tennis player’.

It looks like a great lifestyle. Travel the world, play the sport that you love, be adored by fans, clothing brands, rub shoulders with A-listers.

As a kid, it looks like a fairy-tale.

But what is it really like? What about the other side of that level of fame? What about the sacrifices you have to make along the way?

On Friday (16 July) Netflix premiered its, ‘Naomi Osaka: Playing by her own rules’ documentary. 

How to land on the very top of world tennis

A player who fulfilled the dreams of all junior tennis players, by picking up her maiden grand slam title at the 2018 U.S. Open – aged just 20.

Osaka has become more than just a ‘tennis player’ since being thrust into the limelight after lifting the title at flushing meadows.

A world number one tennis player, a leading fashion line, a brand, a voice for young female athletes, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement and a campaigner for mental health – through her own struggles. 

There isn’t much that Osaka hasn’t completed or had a huge impact on, all at the tender of age of 23. 

In fact, type Osaka into google and her name comes up ahead of the capital city of the country in which she was born. She is one of, if not the biggest female athlete on the planet.

But, what did the documentary tell us about the other side of becoming a world-wide, tennis superstar? How did Osaka get there and what is life on the other side, really like?

The sudden rise

2018 was to be a break-through year for Osaka. It all started with a win at the WTA 1000 event at Indian Wells back in March. 

She over-came some heavy hitters on her way to lifting the prestigious trophy, including a 6-3 6-0 thrashing of then world number 1, Simona Halep. 

Things went a little quiet after what had been a very loud start to the year. 3rd round defeats at the French Open and Wimbledon meant that Osaka wasn’t really considered to be in the frame at the final slam of the year, the U.S. Open.

Add into the mix, two first round defeats in the tournaments leading up to the year’s slam finale at flushing meadows and you could say that the preparation was far from perfect.

But that would long be forgotten as Osaka began to make her march in New York.

Breezing through the first three rounds, Osaka’s biggest test of the whole tournament would come in Round 4 against, Aryna Sabalenka, who she eventually over-came 6-3 2-6 6-4 – it was the only time she would drop a set in the whole tournament.

Osaka would go on to become the first Japanese tennis player to lift a grand slam trophy in a comfortable, if not controversial final against Serena Williams, where the 23-time champion was penalised for calling the referee ‘a thief’. 

Current world number two, Osaka, then did what others have really struggled to do of recent years in the female game. She backed up the win in America by winning the curtain raiser in Melbourne at the start of 2019 (she would go on to win the Australian Open again at the start of this year, 2021).

She was starting to prove that she really is the real deal.

In the space of just five months, Osaka had gone from back-to-back first round WTA 1000 event defeats, to back-to-back grand slam titles – an incredible feat.

With this level of success though, comes the same level of scrutiny and exposure, which as Osaka acutely points out in the documentary, ‘no one prepares you for’. 

At the age of 20, Osaka was fast becoming a house-hold name. One thing you get a sense of in the documentary is just how important it would be to have very good people around you – it’s not hard to see how this can be the downfall of so many people who have risen so quickly.

At that young age, Osaka was still a kid. If you think back to when you were 20, (or think ahead to when you turn 20) consider just how naïve and immature you were (or are). 

Now think of some of the decisions Osaka would have had to be making – totally impossible for a 20 year-old – probably still not easy for her now at the age of 23.

Osaka even makes reference in the documentary to feeling like she does not have a voice, a sad, if not unsurprising admission.

The sacrifice, the pressure, the distractions… the media 

We always hear about the sacrifices of the world’s elite. Missed birthday’s, weddings and christenings are always cited by many of the world’s best.

What about the pressure? We’ve all experienced nerves before, ours might have come in a local club match. Imagine how you would cope with a second serve on match point, for the U.S. Open title. 

I can hear you. But that’s their job? At the end of the day, they are still human and will experience the same anxieties and nerves that you or I face when we play. Except when they mess up, millions of people will see it.

One thing I think that is rarely spoken about is the distractions that these young sports stars face. 

This was really clear to see throughout the documentary. Nearly as much footage was shown of Osaka at fashion launches and modelling shoots as there was of her playing tennis.

You can see how all of this would take its toll on Osaka and no doubt her busy schedule impacted her later decision to withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon – it was exhausting simply watching.

Which I suppose leads us to the media. I imagine the argument will be. You cannot have both worlds. The media are essentially what help to drive exposure for Osaka and ultimately creates the brand that she has become.

But for someone who seemed to look at their happiest when playing cards with her family, or taking pictures of her sister, it seemed as if she would trade things for a more ‘normal’ life.

Would you want it?

Let me pose a situation to you and then ask you a question. 

I’m going to give you everything you have ever worked towards. You will achieve the dreams you had when you were a child, you will become wealthy beyond your wildest dreams and you will be known by everyone.

I cannot guarantee that you will be happy, in fact there’s every chance you will not. Yes, you will have money, but you will have no one to spend it on. Your friends and family will live on the other side of the world and you can’t go to your local coffee shop, because it will take you two hours to simply get your daily flat white.

Fancy a stroll down your home-town beach? Don’t expect to enjoy the scenery, you’ll be taking photos and signing autographs the whole time.

What’s that? You just won’t sign them. Okay, let’s see what the press have to say about that..

You okay with all of this? 

I think the idea of being at the top of world sport seems like a great one, but when you hear and see the reality of it and the loneliness of an empty Californian mansion, I’m not so sure it’s a lifestyle that many people would actually want.

The other side

I spoke to one of my best friends who broke inside the top 200 junior tennis players in the world. 

I asked him what it was like, even at that age trying to become a professional tennis player and what his take on the Naomi Osaka documentary was, he said:

‘It’s a lot at a young age. I’d be travelling all over the world trying to pick up points so that the next time I went away things were a little bit easier.

‘India, Uzbekistan, you name it. These aren’t the glamorous places you fantasise about playing at, but it’s all part of the journey.

‘I suppose watching the Osaka documentary did bring back a lot of memories, some happy, others not so much.

‘You look at other friends and think how much simpler, their ‘normal’ life looks. Is it all going to be worth it? At that age you have no idea.

‘I stopped playing when I was 21, I felt like I’d done all I could. Let’s not forget the tremendous financial outlay that’s required. 

‘For Osaka, on the outside we think she has this amazing life. But I think the documentary showed that the world of elite sport can be a lonely place.

‘Yes, she has a California mansion. But, everything she had done was for her family, who were all back home in Japan. It makes you question whether or not it would all be worth it.’

How to use your voice

The humility with which Osaka carriers herself throughout the documentary is an endearing feature which shines brightly.

Her interaction with Coco Gauff at the 2018 U.S. Open is moving and the class with which she carries herself is certainly befitting of a role model every tennis fan wants to see at the top of the game.

The courage Osaka showed to use the platform she has built to spread important messages will arguably outshine all the honours she goes on to receive – and rightly so.

Osaka, is not afraid to use her voice and notably found it, when she brought a halt to the Western & Southern Open in New York in protest over the Jacob Blake shooting.

The former world number one, said: 

‘As a black woman, I feel there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis’

She would then use her run at the 2020 U.S. Open – which saw her go all the way to the final, and win – to display 7 names of people who have fallen victim of racial injustice. 

Tennis has long been seen as a sport steeped in tradition that has struggled to keep up with the times. A voice was certainly needed in this arena to bring important issues to the forefront of our sport, we are lucky that Osaka found hers.

Happy ever after?

Whilst I don’t think this was necessarily Netflix’s finest piece of work, there’s no doubt that the documentary did a great job of pulling the curtain back and showing what real life inside of a sports star of this calibre is like.

At times, it made for almost uncomfortable watching. Osaka’s shyness was revealed, and you were left questioning whether she really was enjoying what was ultimately her childhood dream. She admitted at the end that she was too far down the road to consider a different avenue.

What was amazing to see was the humility with which she continued to carry herself, despite the level of fame – a true role model.

Osaka’s struggles have been well documented in recent months and whilst her initial withdrawal from the French Open was greeted with controversy. The later revelations of her struggles with mental health were alarming.

Whilst I understand it’s hard to prepare someone of such an age for this level of stardom, I do think there is a level of responsibility that must be undertaken for the welfare of young sporting professionals – not just in tennis.

It seems that alongside playing the sport itself these youngsters are having a responsibility placed upon them to bring to the forefront important matters, because those in other roles of responsibility are not stepping up to the mantle.

Careers in sport are short and there is a huge duty of care that must be attended to by the governing body of each sport for the current and long – term health of all athletes.

Should there be a cap on how many press conferences they do a year? A cap on how many events you can play in a calendar year before a certain age?

I’m hypothesising and absolutely do not claim to know what the answer is.

But what I do know, is that these young athletes are not only the future of the sport we love, but also human beings – just like us – and should be protected at all costs.

Many thanks

Tom

If you have any questions at all about my blog, please feel free to reach out to me via email: tomhaslam@tomhaslamtennis.com or you can find me on Instagram @tomhaslamtennis

Website: https://www.tomhaslamtennis.com/

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