Australian Open: how tennis stars are voicing a necessity for change and what can ATP and WTA Tours do?

Can the ATP and WTA Tours do more to help tennis’ burgeoning young talent?

“If you’re not winning the event, you’re a loser every week.” Cutting words said by Ajla Tomljanovic, in Netflix’s new documentary, Break Point, summing up the brutal mentality of being a tennis player.

The world’s best say it all too frequently, but it’s almost impossible for anyone outside the bubble to understand - in order to be number one, the difference is not down to your physical ability, but your mental fortitude.

And such is the nature of tennis that with the ATP and WTA Tour featuring for almost 52 weeks a year, you are going to be a loser often far more frequently than you’re going to be a winner.

So, if this is the psychology behind one of the most successful sports on the planet, is it really any wonder more and more stars are cutting back on their tour appearances?

With the Australian Open taking place in just a few days time, there was great excitement when it was thought the 2019 and 2021 champion Naomi Osaka would feature. However, the former world number one pulled out of yet another tournament as her break away from the sport continues into its fourth month.

Of course, it now transpires the 25-year-old is expecting her first child, but before the news was revealed, it had not been an inconceivable thought that the Japanese four-time Grand Slam winner was taking another mental health respite from the unabating life of a tennis star.

Osaka has been one of sport’s most vocal advocates for discussing mental health, along with Spanish star Paula Badosa, after she brought attention to the topic in May 2021 when she said she has “huge waves of anxiety” and said she has “suffered long bouts of depression.” She then pulled out of the second round of the French Open before missing Wimbledon entirely. After the US Open later that year, Osaka then took an indefinite break from the sport.

Almost a year after her first break, she has now taken a second substantial break from the court with people fearing this is her quietly starting her retirement.

A constant critique of the tour , Kygios at the US Open in 2022A constant critique of the tour , Kygios at the US Open in 2022
A constant critique of the tour , Kygios at the US Open in 2022

Another figure who enjoys picking and choosing their tournaments is the player who has received more fines for his temperamental on-court behaviour than any other in ATP history: Nick Kyrgios.

Every tournament he goes to, Kyrgios is plagued with criticisms and controversy, and has cited similar mental health concerns to those of Osaka. The Wimbledon finalist regularly misses key tournaments and highlights his dislike of the constant travel and being away from his family as the reasons for these omissions.

In fact, the 27-year-old is set to play the French Open in 2023 for the first time in six years but his reasons seemingly had little to do with tennis. Having previously stressed it was the “worst Grand Slam”, he admitted at the end of last year: “My girlfriend wants to know Paris, so i’m going to play at Roland-Garros 2023. It will be good for me to earn some more money, although I would prefer to have stayed at home.

“I know I can do great results on clay, I beat Roger (Federer), (Stan) Wawrinka, I played a final in Estoril…my girl wants to get to know the city so I will have to go this year.”

Interestingly, Kyrgios states that aside from his girlfriend’s wish to visit Paris, he wishes to earn some more money, rather than citing any desire to win the tournament itself. The Australian has an estimated wealth of around $15 million (£13.2m) having earned nearly $9m in prize money, but financial reward appears to be a greater incentive than winning his first Grand Slam.

On the subject of money, Osaka is also not short of a bob or two, and is one of the world’s highest paid female athletes - according to Forbes, she turned over £42m in 2022, of which only £900,000 was earned on court.

This leads us to the question of how rising stars who do not have those sponsorships or previous prize money to fall back on can do if they need a break from the tour. Can any more be done to help them?

Well, the Australian Open has gone a small way in helping kickstart that conversation. The tournament CEO Craig Tiley announced there would be a significant increase in the total prize fund available, with the main benefactors being those in the early rounds of the tournament.

Speaking ahead of the tournament, Tiley said: “At the Australian Open we’ve upped the prize money for every round from qualifying, through to the finals, with the major increases in the early rounds, where these substantial rewards help players invest in their own careers and in many cases, set themselves up for success throughout the year.”

This additional paycheck is sure to be a dream come true for many, especially at the start of the tennis calendar, but that cannot just be it? Another potential option to help alleviate the pressures, are widening the possibilities to play team tennis events. Tennis is a lonely sport, there is no escaping that reality - when you’re on court, you are completely by yourself.

But by breaking up the relentless schedule more, it could provide some form of relief for those stars further down the food chain that cannot pick and choose when they feel they need a break from the monotony of the tour.

Of course, it goes without saying that those figures who struggle mentally must of course take the necessary breaks when they need to. However, the accessibility to take these hiatuses is harder the further down the food chain you find yourself.

It cannot always be up to the player - in most cases, players cannot afford the necessary entourage required to help with fitness, coaching and mental health. So in the meantime, it must be up to the ATP and WTA organisers to find a potentially long-term solution, otherwise the names who drop off the list of tournaments is set to increase at a potentially damaging rate for the sport.

The world of tennis is currently enjoying a global surge of interest, with stars emerging from all corners of the planet - Chile, Kazakhstan, Tunisia provide prime examples - but without the continued and much needed growth in player support from the tour organisers, this celebration of developing international talent will soon drop to the tedious limits of European superiority that have dominated the sport for decades.