Ash Barty, Serena Williams, now Naomi Osaka – why women’s tennis is experiencing an existential crisis

Serena Williams (left) and Naomi Osaka - Ash Barty, Serena Williams, now Naomi Osaka - why women's tennis is having an existential crisis - Paul Crock/Getty Images

Serena Williams (left) and Naomi Osaka – Ash Barty, Serena Williams, now Naomi Osaka – why women’s tennis is having an existential crisis – Paul Crock/Getty Images

After a disastrous 2022 with Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty retiring, the new Women’s Tennis Association season got off to the worst possible start as Naomi Osaka withdrew from the Australian Open.

The news fits with long-circulating rumors that Osaka has given up training and may never play tennis again. Worse yet, it underscores the impression that modern touring is too unsympathetic a lifestyle for many leading women. Whenever they can afford to get off the merry-go-round, they do.

Of course, Osaka doesn’t need to play to make a living. According Forbes, earned $58m (£47.5m) off court last year, ranking fourth behind Roger Federer, LeBron James and Tiger Woods among the top athletes in the world. On the court, she earned a fraction of that, just $1.2 million.

The competition at the top of women’s tennis – or the lack of it – has been cited by some as a reason for the waning motivation of female players like Osaka and Barty, which may feel when they reach world number one in their twenties.

While the Williams sisters are the exception – Serena left at 40 and Venus still had the odd win at 42 – there is anecdotal evidence that the calendar’s tenacity is less appealing to women than it is to some men.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the international tour was essentially developed by men for men, with Billie Jean King and her associates gradually building a mirror image in the 1970s.

In those days, a sense of camaraderie enlivened the WTA locker room; a clumsy group of gamers fighting together for recognition. Nowadays, however, the lifestyle seems to be much more atomized and isolated, with few players mixing outside of an individual team of trainers and coaches.

They are now much better rewarded by the WTA Tour, which has conveniently become the leading women’s sports organization in the world. But recent developments suggest that higher incomes for top players could mean shorter careers.

Naomi Osaka - Ash Barty, Serena Williams now Naomi Osaka - why women's tennis is having an existential crisis - AG

Naomi Osaka – Ash Barty, Serena Williams now Naomi Osaka – why women’s tennis is having an existential crisis – AG

Netflix’s new documentary series Breakpoint, offers a small sample, but supports the idea that women find it harder to accept failures – or at least talk about those challenges more often. The series also highlights the frustration of those – such as world No. 2 Jabeur – who would like to start a family if it didn’t mean an extended break from touring. Paula Badosa also admits that mental health issues have been a regular part of her tennis life, something Osaka and Barty have discussed before during their careers.

In the five episodes that will air on Friday, it’s not just women expressing concern as Nick Kyrgios also talks about the weight of expectation that made him “drink every night” in his youth. But the likes of Matteo Berrettini and Félix Auger-Aliassime feel comfortable in their environment, while all four women had clear concerns.

Indeed, Berrettini and his then-girlfriend Ajla Tomljanovic are caught up in a revealing conversation at the 2022 Australian Open after Tomljanovic suffered a soul-crushing defeat at the hands of Badosa. Later in the hall, a tearful Tomljanovic told her coach: “What’s the point of being there if I don’t think I can win? I’m just retiring. It’s on my mind.

Later, in their hotel room, Berrettini explains how he tells himself that all his experiences – even the negative ones – will eventually help. “You do it better than me,” he says.

Dealing with near-weekly losses, family planning, and travel schedules are identified as obstacles affecting female athletes. However, WTA’s vice president of mental health and wellness, Becky Ahlgren Bedics, warns that stereotypes can creep into this image as well, and that external factors such as the pandemic are equally important to the players’ ability to cope with life on the road .

“Did they ask men about their family concern? I don’t know,” says Ahlgren Bedics. “I think in women’s sport, that’s something we always have to think about. Travel can be exhausting. Tennis, as an individual competitive sport, certainly has that element when you’re on the court alone and there’s nothing to hide.”

Ahlgren Bedics describes the tour’s “very good utilization rate” of mental health services, with its four-person staff available at events or remotely for players to book appointments with anywhere. World No. 1 Iga Świątek – the most dominant force in sport since Osaka and Barty – spoke about the benefits of having a sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, as a traveling member of her team. But Swiatek isn’t bulletproof either: she burst into tears on the court at the United Cup last week when she suffered a rare straight-set defeat to Jessica Pegula.

Iga Świątek – Ash Barty, Serena Williams now Naomi Osaka – why women's tennis is experiencing an existential crisis – Andy Cheung/Getty Images

Iga Świątek – Ash Barty, Serena Williams now Naomi Osaka – why women’s tennis is experiencing an existential crisis – Andy Cheung/Getty Images

Perhaps, such as Breakpoint – women are simply better at showing and expressing their weaknesses. But when a player as talented and profiled as Osaka seemingly quits tennis, it seems something must change to avoid further losses.

Increasing the number of female coaches and support staff at all levels of tennis can help. But a recent study by Leeds Beckett University, which profiled eight women professional tennis coaches, found that the traditional expectation of coaches to be 100 per cent dedicated to their players can act as a barrier to women. The vast majority of top female players travel on all-male teams, which only adds to the impression that tennis continues to be an environment where men thrive better.

Another possible solution could be to shuffle the tennis calendar to include more team tennis events. The King’s World TeamTennis league, founded in 1973, runs for two weeks in the United States and has attracted top players over the years. The Davis Cup and BJK Cup, along with the new United States Cup, offer similar breaks in the schedule. They can be a fun antidote to the intensity and loneliness of traditional touring weeks.

Whatever the solution, it is needed quickly if women’s tennis is to stem the exodus of its top talent.

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