The U.S. Open represents a lot more than just a tennis tournament to superstar player Naomi Osaka. When the Japanese-born player returned to Flushing Meadows this week, she reflected on the mental health struggles she came face to face with while at the top of the world tennis heap just a few years ago.
“For me coming back here, it means a lot. This room, in particular. There were some tears shed. A lot," Osaka chuckled in the tournament’s main interview room, per The Associated Press. “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.”
The Sept. 6 event brought together Osaka, 23-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps, and U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy for an open discussion about topics like loneliness, using a “buddy system” to connect with others, social media’s role in mental health struggles, and parenting.
Phelps spoke about reaching a “breaking point” nearly a decade ago. After winning six gold medals at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, he fell into what he called a “post-Olympics depression.” But rather than take time to focus on himself, he distracted himself by swimming and training more.
“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,” the Olympian said honestly, admitting he “didn’t want to be alive.” “Instead of talking about it, I just let it build.”
Phelps reached a boiling point and acknowledged how he was living wasn’t working. “I decided that something had to change,” he reflected. “So for me, I had to become vulnerable for the first time in my life.”
Once he reached out for help, he realized the importance of being open with what we’re going through rather than keeping it in. “[It’s all about] just getting things out, right?” he said. “For me, it’s always trying to get things out in the open 'cause the more you’re carrying it, the heavier that backpack gets on your back.”
Osaka first told the world about her fight with depression and anxiety when she withdrew from the French Open in 2021. Since then, she took more extended breaks to take time to focus on herself. Her latest break, she confessed, “really raised my love for the sport and it made me realize I’m not going to play forever.” She went on to cite Venus and Serena Williams as inspirations as she thinks about her future in the spot.
“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,'” she admitted.
“I have to embrace the times. I’ve been playing tennis since I was 3,” she added. "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.”