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The Weight Of Greatness: Naomi Osaka And The Struggle To Be Best

The Weight Of Greatness: Naomi Osaka And The Struggle To Be Best

“I just felt like there’s been a weight on me.”

Those were the words of Naomi Osaka after she lost in straight sets during the first week of the French Open. The loss dropped Osaka to number two in the world, a result that Osaka said, “was probably the best thing that could happen to me.”

It was obvious in both her words and her play that the talented phenom was struggling with the expectations that come with stardom. This week it seems like that weight is still there.

Osaka suffered another humiliating straight-set loss in a first-round match at Wimbledon on Monday, this time to the 39th ranked player in the world, Yulia Putintseva.

Not humiliating because of the score (7-6, 6-4), but because it was Osaka’s third straight loss against Putintseva since she had risen to become the world’s number one ranked player.

In fact, losing seems to have become a habit—especially since she fired her former coach, Sascha Bajin. The World Tennis Association’s coach of the year was hired by Osaka in 2018, and together they defeated Serena Williams to take the US Open last September and then won the Australian Open in January.

Osaka’s run sparked talk of a Calendar Slam—winning all four tennis majors in twelve months—that quickly caught fire.

And then, Bajin was dismissed. Via Twitter:

Bajin responded to the tweet:

Since Osaka and Bajin parted ways, her game has fallen apart, leading to the following scene at Wimbledon yesterday, as Osaka struggled with her post-match presser.

After a reporter asked Osaka if she’d indeed been struggling with fame since vaulting to the top of the world’s tennis rankings, she turned to an official and asked, “Can I leave?”

When the official asked for clarification, Osaka said, “I think I’m about to cry.”

With that, Osaka stood up and darted from the podium, leaving behind a lot of curious reporters and even more unanswered questions.

Let me be clear, I think Osaka is a talented player. She’s proven she has the physical skills to compete and win at a very high level. But physical skills helped her get to the top. Mental strength helps you stay there. The Great Ones combine unshakeable mental skill with their physical gifts. Osaka has shown she has plenty of room for growth in that area.

I’m not alone in my assessment.

Women’s tennis great Chris Evert, said, “There are a few adjustments you have to make when you reach number one. She’s still young…and she still has the game to go all the way, but it might take a little bit of time.”

Men’s tennis legend, John McEnroe, was—in true McEnroe fashion—a bit blunter.

“To me, it’s mental…to me, she just doesn’t look like she’s all there right now.”

I don’t know where Osaka’s head is at right now, but I can tell you from experience and study that without the mental part of her game, she’s going to be uneven at best in her career. The toughness required to withstand a sustained pursuit of success is one of the most undervalued—and underestimated—aspects of Greatness.

Whether you’re talking about athletes or entrepreneurs, people on the court or in the office, the price of Greatness is the ability to stay focused on what matters. Coach John Wooden called it Competitive Greatness, which he defines as the ability to “Be your best when your best is needed.” It’s the kind of mindset that drove Michael Jordan to play a pick-up charity game with the same intensity he had during a Game 6 of the NBA finals. It’s a mindset that says, “Nothing else but my best matters.”

Osaka has become a bit of a media sensation, selling herself as a corporate sponsor, making a lot of appearances on television and taking advantage of her fame to explore areas of interest, like fashion. And that’s fine—she’s not the first athlete to diversify her brand, and she won’t be the last.

She just can’t continue to let the diversions become the brand. For better or worse, her work on the tennis court is what she’s ultimately known for.

That’s a lesson for any of us who seek to be Great: there’s a weight that comes from success, a weight that not everyone is prepared to carry. Achieving success requires intense discipline, but sustaining success requires even more focus and effort.

In his play, King Henry IV, Shakespeare wrote, “Heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

The reason for that is simple: the crown itself is heavy.

If you want to wear it, you’d better be prepared to carry the weight, especially in first-round matches at Wimbledon.

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About Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger

Don Yaeger is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP), longtime Associate Editor for Sports Illustrated, 11-time New York Times best-selling author, leadership expert and executive coach.

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