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Wimbledon finals lack Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka because they put their well-being first

Two of tennis’ biggest names are absent from Wimbledon’s storied grass for this weekend’s finals, and the reason has nothing to do with their play on the court. Instead, Rafael Nadal and Naomi Osaka have elevated athletes’ growing agency to new heights by declaring that their personal wellness is a precondition for competing.

It’s little coincidence that these athletes are working to wrest back control of their wellness at the same time they are speaking up vociferously on matters of social justice.

Citing the short turnaround time this year between the recently completed French Open and Wimbledon, Nadal announced he wouldn’t be appearing at the All England Club through a series of tweets posted June 17. The 20-time Grand Slam champion said he was “listening to my body” to “prolong my career and continue to do what makes me happy.”

Later that same day, Noami Osaka also withdrew from Wimbledon, noting a desire for “personal time with friends and family,” per a statement released by her agent. This decision came on the heels of her snap exit from the French Open only weeks before because of a professed need to safeguard her mental health from the media. In an article for Time magazine, the world No. 2-ranked female player announced she would be back for the Tokyo Olympics after her recent break from tennis, which “taught me so much and helped me grow.”

In this unprecedented moment of athlete activism, tennis players like Nadal and Osaka appear to have reassessed their responsibilities to their sport and to the legions of fans that clamor for them to play. More than ever before, prominent athletes are not only following their own consciences but also openly prioritizing their well-being — both physically and emotionally.

Given the scale of Nadal’s and Osaka’s celebrity, their humanizing choices may empower less-visible athletes and help dismantle societal stigmas surrounding self-care and mental health.

The sporting experience can be pernicious for the mental health of an athlete. A toxic synergy of rigorous training methods, intensity of competition, injury, isolation, travel and pressure to excel commonly breed dangerous psychiatric diseases like anxiety and depression. As a British Journal of Sports Medicine analysis in 2019 showed, between roughly a quarter and a third of current and former elite athletes grapple with mental health symptoms and disorders.

For too long, this weighty burden has been endured in silence. But increasingly, athletes across the sports spectrum are giving voice to their personal struggles, providing hope that these mental health challenges will not only be acknowledged but finally addressed.

Ashleigh Barty, the women’s top seed and victor at Wimbledon on Saturday, took a nearly two-year hiatus when her ailing mind pushed her to leave tennis in 2014. In the 2020 HBO documentary “The Weight of Gold,” Michael Phelps disclosed his suicidal ideation even at the acme of his incredible swimming career. NBA superstars like Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have discussed their experiences with mental illness. And recently, three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers spoke of the primacy of his mental health in the current offseason.

But athletes’ physical health can suffer just as much or more. Financial incentives, organizational pressures and competitive instincts drive athletes to return prematurely from injury, play while injured or sometimes play through pain with the aid of opioids. As Dr. Selene Parekh, an orthopedic surgeon at Duke University, said, “Most [athletes] want to get back into the game at any cost.”

Just like the mental health struggles that are being aired, decisions like Nadal’s create space for athletes to manage the considerable toll sports take on their bodies and push back against the expectations that regularly endanger their physical health. Roger Federer, a 20-time Grand Slam champion, similarly pulled out of the 2021 French Open after a third-round victory, saying, “After two knee surgeries and over a year of rehabilitation, it’s important that I listen to my body and make sure I don’t push myself too quickly on my road to recovery.”

Such caution was also evident when Kevin Durant, arguably the world’s top basketballer, finally returned this season after an extended recovery from an Achilles tendon rupture. The Brooklyn Nets star’s remarkable resurgence from such a devastating, career-threatening injury was due in no small part to his decision to give himself extra time to rehabilitate and to spurn calls to return earlier.

It’s little coincidence that these athletes are working to wrest back control of their wellness at the same time they are speaking up vociferously on matters of social justice and politics. Last year, after a police officer shot Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, sports came to a sudden halt when teams from various leagues followed the lead of six NBA teams and also boycotted their games in protest. And up-and-coming athletes’ clout is set to grow after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of NCAA athletes receiving greater compensation for playing college sports.

Khaled Beydoun, a cultural commentator and lawyer, explained this evolving landscape.

“Social media has given athletes greater control of what they publicize and don’t publicize. Second, there’s a broader social and political consciousness moment and movement where influential, high-ranking athletes have greater responsibility over their lives and their careers,” he said. “They’re reclaiming aspects of their lives that they deem important.”

While social media has to some degree freed athletes from following the dictates of teams, tournaments and sponsors, or from being filtered by media outlets, it has also allowed them to strip away the superstardom and directly evince their fragilities and weaknesses as human beings.

Though emerging and less notable athletes may not possess the financial security and following to make such admissions about their physical and mental health, there is still something to be gained when Osaka and Nadal speak about their struggles.

“Nothing that they do is normal. There is only one Nadal. There is only one Osaka. A hundredth-ranked tennis player is not breaking even and not thinking, ‘I’m having a hard time and I can take an event off,’” said Louisa Thomas, a staff writer at The New Yorker. “But it is a watershed moment for people to be able to talk about it.”

Though Osaka and Nadal are not present to hoist trophies at Centre Court this weekend, they have achieved an enduring victory at Wimbledon by signaling to their fellow athletes that it is OK to showcase their physical and mental wounds.

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