Naomi Osaka's brutal admission over health struggles: 'Felt ashamed'

Naomi Osaka looks on during a match at the 2022 US Open.
Naomi Osaka has confessed her mental health break from tennis in 2021 left her feeling 'ashamed' in the weeks afterwards. (Photo by COREY SIPKIN/AFP via Getty Images)

Naomi Osaka has divulged how much of an impact her break from tennis in 2021 has affected her overall game, saying she 'felt ashamed' of her decision at times. The 25-year-old elected to step away from the sport for some time following the 2021 French Open, in which she was threatened with disqualification for not participating in post-match media conferences.

Osaka returned to the court in 2022, but looked far from the rising star who claimed four grand slam titles between 2018 and 2021. Her best grand slam performance came at the Australian open, when she was knocked out in the first round, while she was a first-round exit at both the French and US Opens. She missed Wimbledon due to injury.

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Back on the entry list for the 2023 Australian Open, where she is a two-time champion, Osaka said she had rediscovered an 'itch' for tennis after a difficult two years. She opened up on The Late Show to discuss the fallout from her sabbatical in 2021, and the difficulties she faced returning earlier this year.

"I think for me, I've just always been taught to kind of like stick it out or work through it, and I think that's a very valuable lesson because it has gotten me through a lot of things in life," she said. "But there was just a point where I thought to myself like 'why?', you know. And not in a negative way, but if I am feeling this way, why would I keep pushing through it, when I can confront it and fix it and then continue on my journey?

"I was kind of huddled up in my house for a while after that whole thing happened (at the 2021 French Open). But then, I went to the Olympics [in Tokyo] and there were so many athletes that came up to me and I was so surprised and I was so honoured because these are people that I watch on TV and I like, I felt really grateful and felt really supported."

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Naomi Osaka details feelings of shame after 2021 mental health break

Osaka's most surprising admission was that she 'felt ashamed' in the weeks after stepping away from the game. She said it had been challenging to adjust her mindset, after an entire lifetime up until that point believing her she could simply find a way to push through whatever obstacle she faced.

In a separate interview with Good Morning America, she said she remained dedicated to tennis now, having been able to use the time away from the sport to 'come back stronger'.

"For me, I felt like it was necessary, but I kind of felt ashamed in that moment because as an athlete you're kind of told to be strong and push through everything, but I think I learned that it's better to re-group and adjust the feelings you have in that moment and you can come back stronger," she said.

Naomi Osaka sits on the players' bench in between sets at the 2022 US Open.
Naomi Osaka says she has learned valuable lessons from her tennis hiatus in 2021, and is ready to put them into practice in 2023. (Photo by Robert Prange/Getty Images)

"I wouldn't have wanted it any other way [taking the break] because I learned a lot during that time.

"For me, I feel like I'm a very curious person, so I've really been grateful to have been given all these avenues to explore, so I'm definitely looking forward to doing a lot of stuff, but I am a tennis player, so, if I don't play tennis for too long, I get an itch."

Osaka split with longtime coach Wim Fissette in July of 2022, who she had worked with since 2019. At the time, Osaka had just been bumped out of the French Open in the first round, and had also skipped Wimbledon due to an Achilles injury.

She has since opted to have her father, Leonard Francois, coach her. She said that the parting with Fissette was on good terms, and was simply brought about through a desire to bring a new voice into her camp.

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