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In the two months since Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open to protect her mental health, after all the noise that followed her decision not to attend press conferences there, she has been everywhere and nowhere at once. As she rested at home, the Tokyo media blitz planned long ago went into overdrive. There were magazine covers, a Netflix documentary and Olympic commercials, then on Friday she stood in the Olympic Stadium with the world watching as she lit the Olympic cauldron.
Two days after headlining newspaper front pages around the world even more than for her four grand slam titles, Osaka returned to the place where she is most comfortable, the tennis court, and she produced a solid opening win as she defeated Zheng Saisai 6-1, 6-4 to reach the second round.
Osaka opened the match as if nothing at all had changed, slamming a typical ace down the T on the first point. As she established herself on top of the baseline against her resourceful, diminutive Chinese opponent, she was not always at her cleanest but she controlled the match and was focused throughout. She did not need to be anything more. After failing to convert two match points in the penultimate game, she served out the match to love.
Tougher tasks await for Osaka and it will be fascinating to see how she handles them. On hard courts in the big moments over the past year, Osaka has been close to unstoppable. She imposed untold pressure on herself by purchasing seven masks at the US Open last September yet she lived up to it as she tore through those seven matches and won. At the Australian Open en route to her title this year, she faced double match point against Garbiñe Muguruza and responded by not making an unforced error for the rest of the match.
This, however, is a different task altogether. Playing for your country in a once-in-a-career home Olympic Games is difficult enough, but doing so after essentially being elected the face of the whole event is another level altogether. Between her sparse scheduling and the decisions she has made, it has often seemed as if her entire year has been leading up to this event, and even more so when she revealed after the match she had known since March she would be lighting the cauldron.
Now she is in the middle of it. “I felt really nervous being in Japan and playing here for the first time in maybe two years, and for it to be my first Olympics,” said Osaka. “It was definitely really nerve-racking. But I am glad I was able to win, she is a very tough opponent.”
After her victory, Osaka returned to speak with the media for the first time since the French Open in unfamiliar circumstances for both parties alike. Rather than the normal press conference environment, she entered the mixed zone immediately next to the stadium as lines of Japanese and international media alike were packed tightly together, all hoping to speak with her. The conversation was brief but she said that she was happy to speak with them again.
Asked about her mental health and how she was feeling after her time away from the sport, Osaka said that her current focus is clear: “I feel like, more than anything, I’m just focused on playing tennis. This, playing the Olympics, has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, so I feel like the break I took was very needed. But I definitely feel a little bit refreshed and happy again.” Osaka will now face Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland.
After Osaka’s moment in the opening ceremony, support has come from many of her contemporaries. Andy Murray, who said he was asleep by the end of the four-hour presentation, noted the positive effect of her prominence on the sport: “Great for tennis that she’s the face of the Games here and hopefully she can do well in front of – well, it’s not in front of a crowd really, but on home soil,” he said on Saturday. Novak Djokovic concurred: “Osaka is a home favourite and a lot of eyes are on her. Being at home playing is a lot of pressure, but it’s great for our sport just in general to see that there’s a lot of attention towards it.”
As Osaka, the world No 2, advanced, the top-seeded Ashleigh Barty was beaten in the first round by the tireless Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain. After such a busy spring, a frantic recovery from injury and then winning Wimbledon two weeks ago all while thousands of miles from her Australian home, some level of fatigue is to be expected. It was punished by one of the most durable players on the tour.