Rafael Nadal joins Naomi Osaka in expressing concerns about playing at Tokyo Olympics

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Naomi Osaka at practice in Rome - AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia
Naomi Osaka at practice in Rome - AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

After several sceptical comments from leading players on Monday, Rafael Nadal has now become the latest tennis star to express doubts about travelling to the Tokyo Olympics in July.

The French Open favourite, who stands level with Roger Federer with 20 grand-slam titles, also owns a pair of Olympic gold medals. He won the singles event at Beijing in 2008, and then the doubles in Rio, where he was partnered by old friend Marc Lopez. But the ongoing issues in Japan, where Covid-19 is still infecting around 5000 people a day, make this a difficult season to plan.

Both Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori, home favourites ahead of the Games in Japan, both expressed their doubts on Monday over competing due to the country’s current state of Covid-19 infections.

In Rome on Tuesday, Nadal was also asked whether he would be playing the Games, and he replied “Honestly I can't give you a clear answer because I don't know my calendar. This year is a bit different, no? We need to be flexible. We need to adapt about things that are happening.

"In a normal world I'll never think about missing the Olympics,” he added. “Everybody knows how important it has been for me to always play in the Olympics. Under these circumstances, I don't know. Let's see what's going on in the next couple of months. I need to organise my schedule ... In a normal year, I know my schedule almost 100 per cent from Jan 1 until the end of the season."

After recent polls had suggested that 60 per cent of Japan’s population would like to see the Olympics cancelled, this was another reminder of how controversial these pandemic Games have become.

Osaka was speaking to the BBC in Rome, where she is playing her second clay-court event of the season. “I'm an athlete, and of course my immediate thought is that I want to play in the Olympics," she said. "But as a human, I would say we're in a pandemic, and if people aren't healthy, and if they're not feeling safe, then it's definitely a really big cause for concern.”

When the BBC’s Russell Fuller asked Osaka if it would be appropriate for Tokyo to stage the Games, she replied: "To be honest, I'm not really sure.”

Osaka is ranked No2 in the world, but on the hard courts that will be used for the Olympic tennis event, she would surely start as favourite. She has won four of the last six hard-court majors, while world No1 Ashleigh Barty has never reached a major final on the surface.

As for how she would feel if there were no fans present in Tokyo – which seems a highly plausible scenario – Osaka said “I've never played an Olympic event, so it's not like I would have anything to compare it to.

"I would feel, of course, definitely a bit sad, but at the end of the day, it's an honour to play in the Olympics in the first place and if that's what keeps people healthy, then I'm up for it.”

Osaka’s concerns about the Olympics were echoed in Rome by other leading players, prompting speculation that there could be a low turn-out rate in the tennis event.

The big names in this year-round sport will find it less traumatic to skip Tokyo than a Greco-Roman wrestler, say, for whom the Games would represent the best chance of reaching a wide audience.

Indeed, the other high-profile Japanese player – former US Open finalist Kei Nishikori – also expressed doubts. “I don't think it's easy,” he said, “especially [with] what's happening right now in Japan. It's not doing good. I think they should really hold [off from making decisions] right now.

“If you think only about athletes, if you can make good bubble, maybe you can do it,” Nishikori added. “But there is some risk too. What's [going to] happen if there is hundred cases in the Village or can be thousands. The corona, it's been spread very easy. So I will say same as Naomi: you have to discuss how you can play really safely.”

A similar question was directed to Serena Williams, who is due to make her playing return this week in Rome after a four-month break. Asked on Monday whether she would go to Tokyo if she wasn’t allowed to take her daughter Alexis Olympia with her, Williams replied “I haven't spent 24 hours without her, so that kind of answers the question itself. We're best friends.

“I haven’t really thought much about Tokyo,” Williams added, “because it was supposed to be last year and now it's this year, and then there is this pandemic and there is so much to think about. So I have really been taking it one day at a time, and I definitely need to figure out my next moves.”

Djokovic impressed by Murray in training hit

By Simon Briggs

Novak Djokovic, the world No1, admitted to experiencing flashbacks on Monday after a practice session with the double Olympic champion Andy Murray at Rome’s picturesque Foro Italico.

Born just a fortnight apart in 1987, these two had spent more than a decade doing battle on the world’s most famous courts. Until Murray’s hip blew up four years ago and their trajectories diverged dramatically.

Djokovic has since added another six majors to his tally. Murray, on the other hand, has won only 21 tour-level matches since the summer of 2017. He is still determined to reboot his career, however, and Djokovic offered him some cautious encouragement on Monday.

“I thought he played very well on the court,” Djokovic said. “He moves well, considering it’s clay which is not the best surface for his hips. But considering what he has been through lately, it seems like he’s been feeling well on the court.

“I haven’t seen him in a while,” Djokovic added, “and it was great to hit with him. We had a nice chat and a few laughs. It brought back the old times when we spent a lot of time on court together, whether it was training or playing against each other.”

If Murray is not participating in the Rome Masters this week, that is because he does not feel quite ready, having barely played a competitive match all season. It is not his metal hip that is responsible – or, at least, not exclusively. He contracted Covid-19 in January and then picked up a mysterious groin injury on the eve of March’s Miami Open.

Now, he intends to enter one of the lower-level ATP 250 events next week, either in Geneva or Lyon, before moving on to Paris for the French Open. It is not yet clear whether he will have to go through qualifying at Roland Garros, or whether he will be granted a wild card into the main draw. The organisers say they want to see him play before making a decision.

In Murray’s absence, Dan Evans has been the British No 1 since October 2019. Evans’s six clay-court wins over the last month must have boosted his confidence, but he was below his best on Monday – and extremely grouchy – as he went down 6-3, 6-2 to American Taylor Fritz in the first round of Rome.

Evans obliterated his racket after losing five games in a row to end the first set, and he directed a stream of invective towards his support camp in the early stages of the second.

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