Tennis players’ mental health is no longer in the shadows

Robin Soderling was at his peak when the walls started to crumble.

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

Söderling reached the final again in 2010, losing to Nadal. By the end of the season, Soderling was ranked No. 4 in the world.

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

“I always felt like I was under pressure,” Soderling, now 37, said during a video call from his home near Stockholm. “The better I got, the worse it got. Basically every game I played was the favourite. When I won, it was more of a relief than happy. When I lost, it was a disaster. Losing a tennis match made me feel like a terrible person.”

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

“My whole immune system was bad because of the mental stress I put on myself,” he said. “Even on my rest days, I was never knocked out. Then my body just fell over. I went from being able to play a five-set game on clay to not being able to walk up the stairs. But I couldn’t really talk to a lot of people about it because there was such a big stigma.’

Sports psychologists are now a regular on the Women’s Tennis Association and ATP Tours. And hardly anyone is afraid to talk about it. At last year’s WTA Finals, most of the top eight singles players spoke freely about receiving counseling for mental health issues.

“I’ve been working with a psychologist for years,” said Maria Sakkari, semi-finalist at the French and American Open in 2021. “I invested a lot in that. It’s probably the best gift I’ve ever given myself.”

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

“Tennis is one of the toughest sports because there are constant changes that sports with a consistent schedule don’t have,” said Danielle Collins, a top 30 player. “We never know what time we’re going to play. We travel every week from city to city on different continents, with different cultures, even different foods. We even play with different tennis balls. And we lose every week unless you win the tournament. That’s something you have to adapt to.”

Last October, on World Mental Health Day, the 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek announced that she was donating $50,000 in prize money to a mental health organization. She is open about the value of having psychologist Daria Abramowicz as a member of her traveling staff. Venus Williams has partnered with the WTA to donate $2 million to BetterHelp, an online therapy site, to provide free service.

Sports psychology and mental wellbeing are not new concepts. Ivan Lendl hired therapist Alexis Castorri in 1985 to help him after losing three consecutive US Open finals. He won the next three. But only recently have players been so open about seeking counseling.

Mardy Fish, the former touring pro and captain of the United States Davis Cup team, opened the discussion when he said he was having panic attacks before his fourth round match against Roger Federer at the 2012 US Open. Fish withdrew from that competition and was subsequently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He highlights his journey in a Netflix documentary.

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

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

“Back then, people were very quiet about seeing someone who could help their game mentally,” says 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 deliver extraordinary performances. A coach is there for biomechanical expertise in the production of strokes. Then there are physiotherapists and massage therapists to facilitate healing and trainers, nutritionists, sports psychologists, even spiritual counselors. The body is quite complex and it works best when all the parts are integrated. The healthier and happier you are, the more you light it on the pitch.”

The WTA and the ATP have also taken note of the importance of well-being. The ATP partners 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 hands-in-hand partnership that makes it feel like an in-house service,” said Ross Hutchins, a former tour player and the ATP’s Chief Tour Officer. “The goal is to make players more open to talking about their problems in a more comfortable way. They may not want to chat about it the way they would with physical injuries, but we want to make it right for them to deal with it.” feel the way they feel.”

The WTA, which has provided mental health services for more than 20 years, recently began a more aggressive approach by adding four mental health providers, one of whom attends tournaments throughout the year. Services include strategies for coping with the mental and emotional challenges of match play, coping with finances, and transitioning to life after tennis.

“Our job is to help the athletes perform their best out of court,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, the WTA’s vice president for mental health and wellness. “We don’t touch the X’s and O’s. We are part of the holistic development. We’re here to help with the pebble in your shoe while running. We say, ‘Let’s stop and get the pebble out before it becomes a bigger problem.’”

The major championships are also on board. At the Australian Open, which starts Monday, a sports psychiatrist and psychologist will be at the disposal of players. So are health and wellness experts. There are quiet rooms where players can relax and concentrate without distraction. There are even soundproofed, private pods in the player areas.

Victoria Azarenka, two-time Australian Open champion, said the tours were taking the right steps.

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

Soderling doesn’t play tennis much anymore, except with his two children. After several attempts at a comeback, each time followed by another panic attack, he stopped. Now he owns RS Sports, a sportswear company, and captains the Swedish Davis Cup team. He considers himself healed and will help anyone who asks.

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

“I’m happy to see that there is a better understanding of mental health these days,” he added. “But it’s sad that it had to happen to so many people before it was taken seriously.”

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