Naomi Osaka sat courtside at the Volvo Car Open, a towel over her head and her coach crouched at her feet.
“It’s so depressing,” said Osaka, one of the fastest rising stars on the WTA Tour.
On social media, life on the WTA Tour looks glamorous.
The Twitter feeds of top women’s tennis players are a series of similar scenes: Photogenic venues, player parties, practice sessions, tantalizing dinner plates, selfies with celebrities.
But another slice of tour life was on display at the recent Volvo Car Open on Daniel Island, won by Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands last Sunday.
As the tournament unfolded on the green clay of the Family Circle Tennis Center, the pressures that can pile up on WTA Tour players were on full display. Few players are immune, from veterans who’ve ranked in the world’s top five to young rising stars who’ve just cashed $1 million checks.
“We know that this tennis life probably also has some tough parts,” said German veteran Julia Goerges, who lost to Bertens in the final.
'Don't want to be here'
At no point were those pressures more evident than during Goerges’ third-round match with the 20-year-old Osaka.
The Japanese-born Osaka entered the Volvo Car Open on a high, having run through Maria Sharapova and No. 1-ranked Simona Halep on the way to her first WTA Tour title at Indian Wells, pocketing $1.34 million for her efforts.
She and fellow Indian Wells finalist Daria Kastkina shared a private jet from California to Miami for the next tournament, where Osaka knocked off WTA legend Serena Williams. In Charleston, she happily did a photo shoot on the aircraft carrier Yorktown with British star Johanna Konta.
But a mere three weeks after her Indian Wells triumph, Osaka was in tears during her match with Goerges, telling her coach, “I don’t want to be here.”
The coach did what he could to pump up Osaka, telling her, “You want to be the best player in the world, this is when you prove it. You’re playing against the No. 13 player in the world, show her the respect. You can beat her at 75 percent.”
It was to no avail, as Goerges won by 7-6, 6-3. Afterwards, Osaka tried to explain what she was feeling.
“I don’t know how to explain it,” she said. “But like, kind of depressed, like it comes in waves … It kind of started yesterday. I just woke up and I was really depressed, and I don’t know why.”
Osaka wasn’t the only one at Daniel Island who had trouble handling success. Defending Volvo Car Open champ Daria Kasatkina seemed taken aback by all the photos of her on the grounds, including the huge poster hanging outside stadium court.
“First off all, of course, (I’m) learning how to deal with this pressure,” the 20-year-old Russian said after a 6-4, 6-3 loss to Goerges in the quarterfinals. “Because it’s really tough. Yeah, I felt it on myself. And I think this is a very, very important experience, which I am happy to get here in Charleston. Actually, a lot of experience I’m getting in Charleston.”
That experience had to do with being the face of a tournament, and with being a defending champion.
“It’s really awkward, to turn your head everywhere and your face is around,” Kasatkina said. “I mean, not every tournament is doing this, honestly. It’s very nice, but at the same time, it puts a little bit of pressure on you. Everybody is asking you if I saw this big picture on the stadium.
“Like, I think everybody saw it in the city.”
'Where no one cares'
On the other end of the spectrum was 24-year-old Genie Bouchard of Canada, who sneaked into the field after some late withdrawals.
Bouchard was ranked as high as No. 5 in the world in 2014, when she won her lone WTA Tour singles title and made the semifinals in two Grand Slam events. Since then, her ranking has plummeted to its current No. 111. She’s better known now for swimsuit photos and suing the U.S. Tennis Association.
On Daniel Island, Bouchard lost to Sara Errani in the first round, then talked openly about the pressures of trying to find her game again.
“I feel good and sometimes I have no idea what’s going on,” Bouchard said. “But I think the most important thing is just to keep going … It’s tough training for two weeks, playing a match, losing and training for two weeks, playing a match, losing.
“It’s a tough cycle to be in, because you feel more nervous and extra pressure for that match, especially (when) you’re on center court and it’s a big tournament. So I want to play some smaller tournaments, and just get matches where no one’s there, no one cares and just grind.”
And that’s the grind of the WTA Tour. Someone always cares, even if it’s just the player herself. And for every winner who holds up a trophy on Sunday, there’s many more players just trying to figure it out.