HomeSportsMaja Chwalinska overcomes depression to make Wimbledon debut
Maja Chwalinska overcomes depression to make Wimbledon debut
This time last year, Maja Chwalinska had reached breaking point.
A week after losing in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying in 2021, the Pole announced that she would be taking an indefinite break from tennis. She had been battling depression for two years, and wrote: “I have reached the point where I am no longer able to bring myself to train.”
Twelve months on, the 20-year-old is beaming with joy after upsetting CoCo Vandeweghe to qualify for her first Grand Slam main draw. Her hiatus lasted four months, and this year she has compiled a 32-9 record so far to surge to her current career-high ranking of No.172.
“I feel speechless,” she says. “This year it was a goal to even qualify for the qualifying, so it’s amazing how things have turned out.”
As a junior, Chwalinska rose through the ranks in tandem with her good friend Iga Swiatek. The pair were Junior Billie Jean King Cup teammates, and the 2017 Australian Open girls’ doubles runners-up together. They made their pro debuts at the same tournament, in Zawada in 2015, and both won their first ITF matches in Torun the following year.
Chwalinska and Swiatek were yin and yang in terms of their styles. Swiatek would be termed the “new Agnieszka Radwanska” when she broke through to the main tour, but it was the slightly-built Chwalinska who had picked up the baton in terms of magic shots. In 2018, grainy videos emerged from ITF World Tour events of Chwalinska deploying tweeners, dropshots and lobs to out-manoeuvre opponents – finesse that was also on show in the biggest win of her career over Vandeweghe.
Chwalinska credits her first coach for encouraging her to use her creativity on court, but also says her effortless-seeming touch is the result of hard work: “Maybe I have it in my hands, but I was practising dropshots and all the other stuff for 12 years.”
But by 2019, Chwalinska wasn’t even finding joy in her flair.
“In 2019 I started to feel bad,” she recalls. “First on the court, but after I also started to feel bad off the court, and it led me to depression. Something I enjoyed the most suddenly became a source of suffering. I associated tennis with pressure, stress and crying.
“I was dealing with that until last year’s Wimbledon, when I decided to take a break. I didn’t know that I would come back, to be honest, because things were not fine. There were dark thoughts. It was tough to even leave the house. I didn’t have any desire for anything.”
Chwalinska left her apartment and went back to stay with her parents; there, surrounded by old friends and working with a specialist, she began to heal. She says that the act of announcing what she had been going through was itself crucial: instead of bottling up her feelings, Chwalinska realised how many people still supported her, even when she had stepped away from her career.
“Even when I had the break, I knew I could count on people around me who supported me,” she says. “They were very supportive and didn’t put any pressure on me. They just wanted me to be happy. We didn’t even speak about tennis anymore.”
Seeking other forms of exercise to help her mental health, Chwalinska tried running (“It wasn’t really my thing”) and boxing (“That was really cool, though”). But living near her tennis club, she was soon lured back – first to hang out with friends, but then to tentatively pick up her racquets again. When she resumed her career, Chwalinska felt she was armed with the techniques she needed to protect her mental health.
“First of all, I’m not as strict with myself,” she says. “I don’t punish myself. I try to control my monologue. Before, when I hit a bad forehand, I would tell myself, ‘I suck, I really suck.’ Easy things to say but when you repeat them, it gets really overwhelming. I do breathing exercises and I try to control my thoughts or just let them go.”
While Chwalinska was dealing with her own depression, mental health has come to the forefront of the discourse in the sporting world, and WTA players such as Swiatek, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu have led the way. As Chwalinska worked her way towards her comeback, the openness of these players was an inspiration.
WTA announces Modern Health as its official mental health partner
“It was huge. Really huge. It’s very important to speak about it. It’s even more important in tennis. You are alone on the court and when you are at the level we are right now, you probably travel alone or just with your coach. You are not at home for a long time. These are tough conditions.”
When she began travelling again, Chwalinska was surprised to discover that she had become a role model of sorts herself.
“After I announced that I had been dealing with depression and then when I came back, a lot of players asked me about what they should do,” she says. “Because they were struggling too. It was a little bit strange at first, because I didn’t even know the scale of the problem, to be honest.
“That’s why it is very important to speak about it. I feel like it’s getting better. Obviously there is a lot of work to do, but I feel like it goes in the right direction.”