By Julian Linden
NEW YORK (Reuters) - From the outside, Italy's Sara Errani appears to be living La Dolce Vita, looking as though she hardly has a care in the world. But behind the dazzling smile, she has a dark secret.
Her recent success in tennis has come at a high price. The pressure, she said, had become so overbearing that she was struggling to sleep at night and no longer enjoying the prospect of going on court.
"I don't know why," she told reporters at the U.S. Open on Thursday after a 6-3 6-1 loss to Flavia Pennetta. "I think it's the pressure. Everything is very difficult for me."
The Italian is one of the rising stars of women's tennis, ranked number one in the world in doubles and fifth in singles. She has a globe-trotting lifestyle and has earned nearly $7 million in prize money.
Two days ago, everything seemed in perfect order when she creamed Australia's Olivia Rogowska 6-0 6-0 in a lop-sided first round match that lasted less than an hour. But on Thursday, she was out of the tournament after suffering one of the biggest upsets of the championship.
Then she made a startling admission.
In the cut-throat world of professional sport where athletes go to extreme lengths to hide their weaknesses, Errani revealed all her fears.
"I'm feeling too much pressure," the 26-year-old confessed. "I don't know why, but I'm not enjoying going on the courts, and that is the worst thing a player can have.
"If you go there and you fight and you lose, not my problem ... but the problem is if you go there and you are not fighting."
After a modest start to her career, Errani hit her prime in the past two seasons. Last year, she reached her first grand slam final at the French Open and was a semi-finalist in New York.
She also won three grand slam doubles titles - at the Australian, French and U.S. Opens - but it has not always been a fun ride.
The higher she climbed, the heavier the burden. When Maria Sharapova announced earlier this month she was pulling out of the U.S. Open, Errani was promoted to fourth seed and thrust into the shortlist of title contenders.
"I have never been here like this ... so it's a new situation for me," she said. "For my team, not only for me, my coach, we have to find the solution."
Errani said she had been shaking and struggling to sleep for four days before the tournament and didn't want to go on court. Then when she did, she had lost her appetite to fight, which had been her biggest strength.
"I don't want to go on the court. I don't want to go to play. I don't want to stay there on the court. I feel very bad," she said.
"So that is the problem for me ... you have to find your motivation. I have to find a way to like to stay there and fight. That is important."
Despite her loss in singles, Errani is still involved in the doubles, joining forces with her fellow Italian Roberta Vinci to defend the title they won last year, and remains optimistic she can win her own mind games.
"I hope this can make me stronger," she said. "I hope that I will try and I will find the solution and feel better.
"It's not (about) winning or losing. That is not my problem. It's to feel good on the court."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)