Tennis champions talk about mental health and dealing with trolls

Madison Keys (left) and Sloane Stephens (right)

photo: Sarah Bull / Associate (Getty Images)

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 in contention for the Grand Slam title are Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, respective winners and finalists at the 2017 US Open. The pair share thirteen WTA titles.

But before the tEnnis powerhouses and close friends return to the court, The root sat down with the pair at the WTA and Hologics Women’s health event to talk about mental health and how to deal with online haters.

Black female athletes, including tennis players Serena Williams and Naomi Osakaand gymnasts Simone BilesThey’ve started to open up about their mental health in recent years, despite social pressures to keep quiet and just play the game.

In 2021, Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, retired from the French Open to tend to her depression, which she says has been exacerbated by post-game interviews. Later that same year, Biles, considered by many to be the best gymnast in the world, retired from the Tokyo Olympics deal with their mental health.

Stephens says that as a black woman and athlete, it’s especially important for her to be committed to both mental and physical health.

“I’m a huge advocate for therapy,” says Stephens, who struggled with personal tragedy early in 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.”

Exuding confidence both on and off the court, Stephens says that as an athlete in an individual sport like tennis, there’s a lot of pressure to keep it all in.

“I compete against everyone else that I play with, and nobody feels comfortable talking about what they’re feeling or going through,” she says. “[But] I think the stigma is changing a lot, which I’m happy about.”

The ability to open up to friends, even if they’re competitors, has been tremendous for Stephens, who is regularly confronted with a barrage of hateful messages, including credible death threats.

“All of us athletes, including Maddie,” Stephens says, referring to Madison Keys, “we’ve been getting these crazy messages for years and we’ve totally normalized being verbally abused and receiving death threats… Maddie is like my social media therapist.”

Black female athletes, particularly those in sports typically associated with whiteness, have often been the subject of malicious online bullying.

When Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021 for psychological reasons, the tournament was over official twitter account openly mocked her on her side.

In a now-deleted tweet, the account posted a photo of four other tennis players with the caption, “You got the brief.”

Right wing trolls like Megyn Kelly also attacked Osaka Taking to Twitter, he poked fun at her for her anxiety, saying: “Poor @naomiosaka… The truth is she doesn’t like Qs she can’t control. Admit it.”

Keys, who is multiracial, says people who troll athletes and celebrities online often don’t see them as real people.

“When you see people on Instagram,” says Keys, “you’re looking at them through a phone or a video on your phone, you’re not connecting that they’re a human anywhere else in the world.”

When you’re face-to-face with someone, it’s a lot harder to say something hurtful because you can see you’re hurting someone, Keys says.

“I think it’s become so easy to just say things that you would never say to a person in person,” she says.

Because of all the pressures she’s under, Keys says she’s had to prioritize mental health.

“You have to think about all the things that you prioritize like eating, sleeping and drinking water because we need it to be healthy,” says Keys. “I think when you start giving yourself, even if it’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes a day, that’s when you realize changes happen.”

Improving your mental health doesn’t always have to be work, though, says Keys, who finds exploring and writing help her relieve stress.

“The greatest thing is really getting out there and doing things…in a new city,” says Keys. “If I could find some time to go to Central Park or go to a really great restaurant, try a new coffee shop. It’s the little things that really make me happy.”

Stephens has her own strategies for relieving stress, including boxing, playing bingo with friends, or having a nice day at the spa with her mom, even if it’s just at home.

“Put in a bubble bath, put on face masks, do what needs to be done,” Stephens says, laughing.

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