The mental health of tennis players is no longer in the shadows

Robin Soderling was at the peak of his abilities when the walls began to collapse.

In 2009, when Soderling was only 24 years old, he stunned four-time defending champion Rafael Nadal on his way to the French Open final.

Soderling reached the final again in 2010, losing to Nadal. At the end of the season, Soderling was 4th in the world.

Eight months later, he played his last match on the ATP Tour.

“I’ve always felt under pressure,” Soderling, now 37, said in a video call from his home near Stockholm. “It simply came to our notice then. Basically, every match I played was a favorite. When I won, it was more of a relief than a joy. It was a disaster when I lost. When I lost tennis, I felt like a terrible person. “

Expectations were high once he had success as a junior. But by the time he was 26, Soderling was done, experiencing anxiety and panic attacks as well as debilitating mononucleosis.

“My whole immune system was bad because of the psychological stress I put on myself,” he said. “Even on their days off, they never turned me off. Then my body just rolled over. From being able to play a five-set clay match, I decided I couldn’t walk up the stairs. But I couldn’t talk to a lot of people about it because it was such a big stigma. “

Sports psychologists are now a regular presence at the Women’s Tennis Association and ATP Tours. And almost no one is afraid to talk about it. At last year’s WTA Finals, most of the top eight singers talked freely about being given mental health counseling.

“I’ve been working with a psychologist for years,” said Maria Sakkari, a semifinalist at the French and United States Open in 2021. “I’ve invested a lot. It’s probably the best gift I’ve ever made for myself. “

Because tennis is an individual sport, most players are on their own with limited support nets. They travel 11 months a year and almost everyone loses regularly.

“Tennis is one of the most challenging sports because there are constant changes that sports with a consistent schedule do not have,” said Danielle Collins, a player in the top 30. “We never know when we’ll play.” Every week we travel from city to city on different continents, with different cultures, even with different foods. We even play with different tennis balls. And we lose every week if you don’t win the tournament. That’s something you have to adapt to. “

Last October, on World Mental Health Day, Iga Swiatek, the French Open 2020 champion, announced that she was donating $ 50,000 to a mental health organization. She is open about the importance of having psychologist Daria Abramowicz as a member of her travel staff. Venus Williams has teamed up with the WTA to donate $ 2 million to the free online therapeutic site BetterHelp.

Sports psychology and well-being are not new concepts. Ivan Lendl hired therapist Alexis Castorri in 1985 to help him after losing three US Open finals in a row. He won three more. But only recently have players been so open about seeking advice.

Mardy Fish, a former travel professional and captain of the United States Davis Cup team, opened the debate when he said he had panic attacks before the fourth round match against Roger Federer at the 2012 US Open. Fish withdrew from the match and was subsequently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He illuminated his journey in a Netflix documentary.

Naomi Osaka made headlines last May when she dropped out of the French Open, citing mental health concerns. She lost in the third round at the US Open in September and returned to tour in Australia just this month.

Jim Loehr, a clinical psychologist, has been practicing since the 1970s and founded the Center for Athletic Excellence in Denver. He saw how the field was developing.

“People were very quiet then when they saw someone who could mentally help their game,” said Loehr, who is also a co-founder of the Human Performance Institute. “And we couldn’t talk about it either, because our work is confidential.” Now everyone seems to have a sports psychologist.

“That makes perfect sense,” he said. “Athletes need a team around them to be able to stimulate extraordinary performances. The trainer is here for biomechanical expertise in stroke production. Then there are physiotherapists and massage therapists to facilitate healing and trainers, nutritionists, sports psychologists, and even spiritual counselors. The body is quite complicated and works best when all parts are integrated. The healthier and happier you are, the more you light it up on the court. ”

The WTA and ATP also noted the importance of mental well-being. ATP has teamed up with Sporting Chance, a British mental health organization. ATP players can call counselors and therapists 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have a hand in hand that makes us feel like an in-house service,” said Ross Hutchins, a former tour player and chief executive of ATP. “The goal is to make players more open and talk about their problems in a more comfortable way. They may not want to talk about it like they are with physical injuries, but we want to make sure they feel the way they do. ”

The WTA, which has been offering mental health services for more than 20 years, recently launched a more aggressive approach by adding four mental health care providers, one of which is in tournaments year-round. Services include strategies for managing the mental and emotional problems of wrestling, handling finances, and moving to life after tennis.

“Our job is to help athletes be the best off the court,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA’s vice president of mental health and wellness. “We’re not touching X and O.” We are part of a holistic development. We are here to help you with the pebbles in your shoe while running. We say, ‘Let’s stop and take the pebble out before it’s a bigger problem.’ “

There are also major championships on board. A sports psychiatrist and psychologist is available to players at the Australian Open, which starts on Monday. As well as health and well-being experts. There are quiet rooms where players can relax and concentrate without distractions. There are even soundproofed private modules in the gaming areas.

Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, said the tour was taking the right steps.

“I think the world is changing their perception of what mental health is,” she said. “We have the empathy to see someone who is physically injured. Mental health is something that is invisible. But it’s as strong as physical health. “

Soderling doesn’t play tennis much anymore, except for his two children. After several comeback attempts, each followed by another panic attack, he stopped. He now owns RS Sports, a sportswear company, and serves as the captain of the Swedish Davis Cup team. He considers himself healed and will help anyone who asks for it.

“As athletes, we are treated with the best medical care you can have if you have a knee or wrist injury,” Soderling said. “But it took me a long time to work on the mental aspect.” It’s a shame it’s called mental health, because it wasn’t just in my head. My whole body was hit.

“I’m glad we have a better understanding of mental health today,” he added. “But it’s sad that it must have happened to so many people before they started taking it seriously.”

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