I recently attended a talk given by Herschel Walker, the former NFL running back and Heisman Trophy winner. He shared some of the horrific events of his childhood that probably played a part in the later splintering of his fragile psyche, such as living in terror of being attacked by members of the Klu Klux Klan, and being the chubby kid who was constantly bullied.
Walker also opened up about some of the early glimpses of his mental illness. He first shared his concern with a pastor who then made it the topic of that Sunday’s sermon. Walker even endured an exorcism, before finally obtaining professional help.
As I listened to him share about his diagnosis and eventual treatment for Dissociative Identity Disorder, I found myself wondering if any professional tennis players had ever opened up like this about being mentally ill. I don’t remember ever reading about mentally ill tennis players. Have you?
But surely some must exist? Mental illness is not incompatible with playing professional tennis. It certainly did not interfere with Walker’s tremendous accomplishments as a pro football player.
Most tennis players are probably more comfortable talking about their physical injuries than acknowledging mental illness, which may be unfairly perceived as a sign of weakness. As the general population continues to struggle with the unfair stigma attached to mental illness, think of how much more difficult it may be for the professional athlete.
One of the few references I could find to mental illness in professional tennis involved a player named Edwin P. Fischer. He played for the West Side Tennis Club and won the New York Metropolitan Singles Championships in 1896, 1898 and 1899. He won the US Open mixed doubles in 1894, 1895, and 1896 with the same partner, a Ms. Juliette P. Atkinson. He was ranked #9 in the US in 1901. Yes, I had to go that far back.
According to the December 2, 1920 New York Times, Fischer was admitted to Bellevue Hospital after his sister reported that he has been annoying relatives with his dire predictions. On September 11th, 1920 (I kid you not), Fischer sent a number of postcards from Canada, warning friends to get out of New York because Wall Street was going to explode.
The fact that he had accurately predicted the Wall Street explosion was later determined to be purely coincidental and not evidence of his psychic abilities as he had claimed. Fischer was arrested in front of a crush of paparazzi upon his arrival in New York. In explanation of his bulky clothing, he revealed that he was wearing two business suits for warmth and his tennis clothes underneath in case an opportunity to play presented itself.
Howard Schoenfield is still listed as an inactive player on the ATP tour. He won most of the tournaments he entered in 1975, including the 18-and-under championship. Later that year he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was admitted to a mental hospital for several months. He attempted to recoup his career the following year but was never again successful. He lives today in a halfway home.
In 1982, Sports Illustrated writer, Barry McDermott, wrote an in-depth piece on mental illness among junior tennis players. Though somewhat dated and containing notions of mental illness that we now know to be inaccurate, the piece is a detailed treatise on the mental decline of a number of Junior tennis players whose emotional unraveling was at the time linked to the pressures of competition and achievement.
The pressure has only grown since then. Does tennis have a Herschel Walker who will step up and courageously admit to his or her struggles?