Tuesday, September 7, 2021

2021 US Open: With Launch Of 'Mental Health Initiative,' USTA Amplifies Commitment to the Whole Athlete

Nick Kyrgios of Australia explains his concerns about towels during the post-match interview following his first-round loss to Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut. Video courtesy of USTA.


new Mental Health Initiative, which launched at the 2021 US Open, is one of those programs that prompts the question, "Why didn't they do that a long time ago?"

The centerpiece of the initiative is access to licensed mental health providers who are available to players throughout the duration of the tournament. There are also quiet rooms, among other support services.

The mental health initiative is an extension of what the USTA terms the US Open's existing comprehensive medical services program through its partnership with Mount Sinai Health System.

“Our goal is to make mental health services as readily available to athletes as services for a sprained ankle – and with no stigma attached,” says USTA Vice President Brian Hainline, a medical doctor and university neurology professor.
“We will provide an environment that fosters wellness while providing the necessary resources to readily allow mental health care-seeking.”

In a press release, the USTA cites the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic as the driver behind the mental health initiative, but tennis watchers know that Naomi Osaka likely had a greater impact.

A few months ago, the world No. 3 tweeted that she was withdrawing from the 2021 French Open because she did not wish to continue to be a distraction. Earlier, she had disclosed that she would not be doing post-match interviews, citing mental health issues that dated to her 2018 US Open title win over Serena Williams

Though the Japanese player was criticized for disclosing her withdrawal on Twitter after the kerfuffle that ensued from her first-round victory announcement, she had let the mental health genie out of the bottle.
Qualifier Emma Raducanu of Great Britain reached the quarterfinals with a straight-set victory over the USA's Shelby Rogers. Photo by Darren Carroll/USTA.

And that's a good thing, because other players will be more willing to admit that they are not feeling well mentally. Or they won't have to. They can quietly and discreetly avail themselves of the services available at the current tennis tournament.

One can't help but wonder whether players like Tracy Austin, Marion Bartoli, Bjorn Borg, Steffi Graf, Justine Henin, Pete Sampras and others would have stayed on the tour longer if they had the kind of on-demand mental health support promised by this initiative.

Among its collaborators is the ITF, as well as the ATP and WTA. Officials from the latter two organizations welcome it, in fact.

"The mental health pressures faced by players week in week out on Tour are significant. This is a matter of paramount importance and increasing focus for the Tour, as we continue to expand support available to players," says ATP Chairman Andrea Gaudenzi.

"The wide-ranging initiatives in place at this year’s US Open are another valuable step forward, as is driving more open discussion around this space in years ahead.”

Andy Murray of the UK speaks about the breaks that Stefanos Tsitsipas took during his five-set, first-round loss to the Greek. Video courtesy of USTA.

Becky Ahlgren Bedics, the WTA's VP Mental Health & Wellness, echoes those sentiments: "The renewed interest and energy around discussing the mind-body performance connection, generated by athletes, is a welcome and important enhancement to the discussion.

"We appreciate," adds Ahlgren, "that the US Open continues to evolve its services offered to athletes and we are confident that these new initiatives will complement our WTA Mental Health & Wellness services.”

Any number of players at this year's open could or should take advantage of the mental health services and/or quiet room:

1. Nick Kygrios (Australia; on-court towel placement);
2. Andy Murray (UK; Stefanos Tsitsipas' particularly long break that the Brit believes may have contributed to his first-round loss);
3. Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece; vilification by media and fans for taking a break that is not forbidden by the rules but may have been excessive);

Czech Barbora Krejcikova was escorted off court in distress after her straight-set victory over Garmine Muguruza of Spain. Photo by Darren Carroll/USTA.

4. Leylah Fernandez (Canada; managing spotlight after consecutive upsets of world's Nos. 3 and 17 players);
5.Carlos Alcaraz (Spain; managing spotlight after upset of world's No. 3 player);
6. Emma Raducanu (UK; managing spotlight as a qualifier through to the quarterfinals);
7. Naomi Osaka (Japan; general issues and outburst during second round loss to then-18-year-old Canadian, Leylah Fernandez)
8. Shelby Rogers (USA; managing spotlight and possibly self-imposed pressures after upset of world No. 1, Ashleigh Barty)
9. Ashleigh Barty (Australia; spending months on the road without going home)
10. Barbora Krejcikova (Czech Republic; hyperventilating after fourth-round victory over Garbine Muguruza of Spain)
11. Novak Djokovic (Serbia; attempt to win 21st grand slam AND win first calendar slam in more than 50 years) and the list goes on ...

Novak Djokovic of Serbia prepares to hit balls into the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadiium after his fourth-round, four-set victory over American Jenson Brooksby. With three more match wins, the world's No. 1 tennis player will reach major milestones. Photo by Garrett Ellwood/USTA.

Mental health ambadsasor Mardy Fish of the United States also gives the mental health initiative a thumbs-up.

“As a player and individual that dealt with issues of anxiety on and off the court, I applaud the USTA for providing licensed mental health care providers and services for today’s athletes and for taking proactive steps to draw awareness to an issue that has been overlooked in the past."

Visit https://www.usopen.org/ to watch and listen to live tennis, plus get scores, schedules, stats, draws and more information about the 2021 US Open.

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