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

Robin Söderling was at the peak of his powers when the walls began to crumble.

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

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

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

“I always felt like I was under pressure,” Söderling, now 37, said on a video call from his home near Stockholm. “The better I got, the worse it got. Basically, I’ve been the favorite in every match I’ve played. When I won, I was more relieved 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 found success as a junior. But by the time he was 26, Soderling was done after experiencing anxiety and panic attacks and debilitating mononucleosis.

“My overall immune system was bad because of the mental stress I was putting on myself,” he said. “Even on my rest days, I was never switched off. Then my body just fell over. I was unable to play a five set match on clay until I was unable 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 regulars with the Women’s Tennis Association and ATP Tours. And almost nobody is afraid to talk about it. At last year’s WTA Finals, most of the top eight singles players spoke openly about seeking mental health counseling.

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

Because 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’s constant change that sports with a constant schedule don’t have,” said Danielle Collins, a top 30 player. “We never know when we’re going to play. We travel from city to city on different continents every week, with different cultures, even different food. We even play with different tennis balls. And we lose every week unless you win the tournament. You have to be prepared for that.”

Last October, on World Mental Health Day, Iga Swiatek, the 2020 French Open winner, announced that she would be donating a $50,000 prize 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 offer a free service.

Sports psychology and mental well-being are not new concepts. Ivan Lendl hired therapist Alexis Castorri to help him in 1985 after losing three consecutive US Open finals. He went on to win the next three. But it’s only recently that players have been open enough to seek advice.

Mardy Fish, the former touring pro and United States Davis Cup team captain, opened the discussion by saying he had panic attacks before his fourth-round match against Roger Federer at the 2012 US Open. Fish retired from that match and was subsequently diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. He shed light on his journey in a Netflix documentary.

Naomi Osaka made headlines last May when she retired from the French Open due to mental health issues. She lost in the third round at the US Open in September and only returned to the tour in Australia this month.

Jim Loehr, a clinical psychologist, has practiced since the 1970s and founded the Center for Athletic Excellence in Denver. He has seen how the field has developed.

“Back then, people were very quiet about seeing 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 perform exceptionally. A coach is available for biomechanical expertise in stroke production. Then there are physical therapists and massage therapists to facilitate healing, and trainers, nutritionists, sports psychologists and even spiritual advisors. 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 the ATP have also acknowledged the importance of well-being. The ATP has partnered with Sporting Chance, a UK mental health organization. ATP players can call counselors and therapists 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have a hand-in-hand collaboration that feels like an internal service,” said Ross Hutchins, a former tour player and ATP chief tour officer. “The goal is to make players more open to talking about their problems in a more pleasant way. They may not want to talk about it the way they do about physical injuries, but we want them to be okay with feeling the way they do.”

The WTA, which has been providing mental health services for more than 20 years, recently embarked on a more aggressive approach, adding four mental health providers, one of which has tournaments throughout the year. Services include strategies for coping with the mental and emotional challenges of match play, managing finances and transitioning into life after tennis.

“Our job is to help athletes look their best off the court,” said Becky Ahlgren Bedics, WTA vice president of mental health and wellbeing. “We don’t touch the X’s and O’s. We are part of the holistic development. We’re here to help run with the pebble in the shoe. We’re like, ‘Let’s stop and take that pebble out before it becomes a bigger problem.’”

The big championships are also on board. A sports psychiatrist and a psychologist will be available to players at the Australian Open, which begins on Monday. So are health and wellbeing experts. There are quiet spaces where players can relax and focus without distractions. There are even soundproof, private pods in the player areas.

Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion, said the tours were making the right moves.

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

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

“As an athlete, if you have a knee or wrist injury, we are treated with the best medical care you can have,” 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 glad to see that there is a better understanding of mental health today,” he added. “But it’s sad that it had to happen to so many people before it was taken seriously.”

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