Tennis Champions Talk Mental Health and Dealing with Trolls

·4 min read

Madison Keys (Left) and Sloane Stephens (Right)
Madison Keys (Left) and Sloane Stephens (Right)

On Monday, the best tennis players from around the world will descend upon New York City for the US Open, the final grand slam tournament of the year.

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Among those battling it out for the grand slam title are Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, the respective winner and finalist of the 2017 US Open. The pair share thirteen WTA titles between them.

But before the tennis powerhouses and close friends step back onto the court, The Root sat down with the pair at the WTA and Hologic’s women’s health event to talk about mental health and how to handle online haters.

Black female athletes, including tennis players Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, and gymnast Simone Biles, have begun to open up about their mental health in recent years, despite the social pressure to stay quiet and just play the game.

In 2021, Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, withdrew from the French Open to seek care for her depression that she says was worsened by post-match interviews. Later that same year, Biles, who was 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’s especially important for her to be an advocate for both mental and physical health.

“I’m a big advocate for therapy,” says Stephens, who dealt with personal tragedy early in her life when her dad 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 is a lot of pressure as an athlete in an individual sport like tennis to hold everything inside.

“It’s me against everyone else I’m playing with, and no one’s comfortable talking about what they’re feeling or what they’re going through,” she says. “[But] I think that stigma is changing a lot, which I’m happy about.”

Having the ability to open up to friends, even if they’re competitors, has been huge for Stephens, who faces a barrage of hateful messages, including credible death threats, on a regular basis.

“All of us athletes, Maddie included,” says Stephens, referencing Madison Keys, “we’ve gotten these crazy messages for years, and we’ve completely normalized being called names and death threats… Maddie is like my social media therapist.”

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

When Osaka withdrew from the French Open in 2021, for mental health reasons, the tournament’s official Twitter account openly mocked her on their page.

In a now-deleted tweet, the account posted a photo of four other tennis players with the caption: “they understood the assignment.”

Right-wing trolls like Megyn Kelly also attacked Osaka on Twitter, making fun of her for her anxiety, saying: “poor @naomiosaka... Truth is she doesn’t like Qs she can’t control. Admit it.”

Keys, who is bi-racial, 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 video on your phone, you don’t connect that they are a human being somewhere else in the world.”

When you’re sitting across from someone one-on-one, it’s a lot harder to say something hurtful because you can see that you’re causing someone pain, says Keys.

“I think it’s just gotten so easy to just say stuff where you would never say that 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 noticing changes happen.”

However, improving your mental health doesn’t always have to be work, says Keys, who finds exploring and writing helps her de-stress.

“The biggest thing is really trying to get out and doing things… in a new city,” says Keys. “If I could find little pockets of time to walk to Central Park, or go to a really great restaurant, try a new coffee shop. Those are 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 it’s just at home.

“Make a bubble bath, do some face masks, do what needs to be done,” says Stephens with a laugh.