Naomi Osaka’s title defense at the U.S. Open is over, and it’s not really clear right now what else might be.
After a 5-7, 7-6 (2), 6-4 loss to 18-year-old Leylah Annie Fernandez of Canada in the third round at Flushing Meadows on Friday night, Osaka announced that she plans to “take a break from playing for a while,” a stunning coda to a season that began with a win at the Australian Open before her withdrawal from the French Open, return as the cauldron lighter at the Olympics, and third-round exits in Tokyo and Cincinnati before another in New York.
Osaka is 23 and has won seven career singles titles, including two Australian Opens and two U.S. Opens. As bright as her tennis future could be with the talent that’s taken her to No. 1 in the world, she’s also been a touring professional since she was 16, and held the mantle of a major champion since she was 20.
That’s a track that takes someone out of experiencing life in a way anywhere near normal, and while that’s a dream for many, it also comes with a lot of pressure, and a lot of sacrifice. There are people who say that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. But the flip side of that is that pursuing such a career track can sap you of the love that brought you there in the first place.
What Osaka is describing — that when she wins, it’s merely a relief, and when she loses, it’s devastating — is symptomatic of the latter scenario, and the worst takes about Osaka are the ones from people who can’t grasp this.
Certainly, Osaka has the luxury of being able to take a break from competitive tennis after having won nearly $20 million in her career, not to mention endorsements. But she’s also going to leave a ton of money on the table that she could earn as a four-time major winner and current No. 3 player in the world, just by showing up at tournaments.
For as much as playing elite tennis is about mental toughness, Osaka being able to make this decision, and doing so with others trying to stop her, is as tough as it gets.