On Monday, the best tennis players from around the world will descend on New York City for the US Open, the final Grand Slam tournament of the year.
Among those fighting for the Grand Slam title are Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, the respective winner and finalist of the US Open 2017. The pair share thirteen WTA titles between them.
But beforeEnnis’ rulers and close friends return to the field, root sat with the duo at the WTA and Hologic women’s health event to talk about mental health and how to deal with online haters.
Black female athletes, including tennis Serena Williams AND Naomi Osakaand gymnast Simone Bileshave begun to open up about their mental health in recent years, despite social pressure to keep quiet and just play the game.
In 2021, Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, withdrew from the French Open to seek treatment for her depression, which she says was exacerbated by the post-match interviews. Later that year, Biles, considered by many to be the best gymnast in the world, withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics to deal with her mental health.
Stephens says that as a black woman and athlete it is especially important for her to be an advocate for mental and physical health.
“I’m a huge advocate of therapy,” says Stephens, who dealt with personal tragedy early in her life. when her father died in a car accident in 2009. “Even if you can’t afford a therapist, talk to a friend, someone who’s willing to listen, because sometimes that’s all you need.”
Stephens, who exudes confidence both on and off the court, says there’s a lot of pressure as an athlete in an individual sport like tennis to keep everything inside.
“It’s me against everyone else I’m playing with, and no one is comfortable talking about what they’re feeling or what they’re going through,” she says. “[But] I think the stigma is changing a lot, which I’m happy about.”
The ability to open up with friends, even if they’re competitors, has been huge for Stephens, who faces a barrage of hate mail, including credible death threats, on a regular basis.
“All of us athletes, including Maddie,” says Stephens, referring to Madison Keys, “we’ve been getting these crazy messages for years and we’ve completely normalized the name-calling and the death threats… Maddie is like the therapist my social media.”
Black female athletes, especially those in sports typically associated with whiteness, have often been the subject of vicious online harassment.
When Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021, for mental health reasons, the tournament official Twitter account they openly mocked him on their website.
In a now-deleted post, the account posted a photo of four other tennis players with the caption: “they got the job done.”
Right wing trolls like Megyn Kelly also attacked Osaka on Twitter, mocking her for her anxiety, saying: “Poor @naomiosaka… The truth is she doesn’t like questions she can’t control. Accept it.”
Keys, who is biracial, says people who troll athletes and celebrities online often don’t see them as real people.
“When you see people on Instagram,” Keys says, “you’re looking at them through a phone or video on your phone, you don’t connect that they’re human beings somewhere else in the world.”
When you’re sitting face-to-face with someone, it’s much harder to say something hurtful because you can see that it’s causing someone pain, Keys says.
“I think it’s become so easy to say things you would never say to a person in person,” she says.
Because of all the pressure she faces, Keys says she’s had to make mental health a priority.
“You have to think about all the things you prioritize like eating, sleeping and drinking water because we need it to be healthy,” says Keys. “I think if you start giving yourself even if it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes a day, then you start to notice the changes that happen.”
However, improving your mental health doesn’t always have to be work, says Keys, who finds that exploring and writing helps her de-stress.
“The biggest thing is really trying to get out and do things… in a new city,” Keys says. “If I could find some time to walk in Central Park, or go to a really great restaurant, try a new coffee shop. It’s the little things that make me really happy.”
Stephens has her own strategies for de-stressing, including boxing, playing bingo with friends or having a nice spa day with her mom, even if she’s home alone.
“Take a bubble bath, do some face masks, do what needs to be done,” Stephens says with a laugh.