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Naomi Osaka conceded the pressure of going for gold at a home Olympics proved "a bit much" after she was shocked in straight sets by Marketa Vondrousova, the world No 42 from the Czech Republic.
The world No 2, competing for the first time in Tokyo after an eight-week break to protect her mental health, was the highest-ranked player left in the women's singles competition after Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty's shock opening-round defeat to Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain.
That had further increased the pressure on the 23-year-old's shoulders, who had long been identified as Japan's golden girl at these Games, and who was chosen to light the Olympic flame in Friday's opening ceremony.
But her dreams were dramatically dashed in the third round as an inspired Vondrousova triumphed in straight sets 6-1, 6-4 after an hour and eight minutes.
“I’m disappointed in every loss, but I feel like this one sucks more than the others," said Osaka afterwards.
"I definitely feel like there was a lot of pressure for this. I think it's maybe because I haven't played in the Olympics before and for the first year, it was a bit much."
Asked if she had been affected by her break from playing - her last appearance was in the first round of the French Open at the end of May - Osaka added: "I've taken long breaks before and I've managed to do well. I'm not saying that I did bad right now, but I do know that my expectations were a lot higher. I feel like my attitude wasn't that great because I don't really know how to cope with that pressure, so that's the best that I could have done in this situation."
Vondrousova, currently ranked 42 in the world but with a career high of 14 from July 2019, broke Osaka in the very first game and then refused to relinquish her stranglehold, becoming the first player to take a set off the Japanese player at these Olympics.
With all 11 outside courts not seeing any action due to the rain brought by tropical storm Nepartak, all eyes were on centre court where an out-of-sorts Osaka needed to rally quickly.
The blue hard court should have been her friend, after all she had won 25 out of the last 26 matches she had played on the surface, winning four out of six Grand Slams along the way.
A break of serve followed by a hold to love was a good response for Osaka but the inspired Vondrousova, perhaps with a point to prove having qualified somewhat controversially ahead of the higher-ranked Karolina Muchova to make it onto the loaded Czech team, broke back shortly afterwards to bring matters back on serve.
At 3-3, Osaka had a sniff of another break when Vondrousova chucked in back-to-back double faults but the Czech player somehow managed to recover from 15-40 down to hold, the smile of relief on her face saying everything.
The next two games would also go with serve and so, at 4-5 down, Osaka was serving to stay in the match. A nation held its breath. Two match points against their hero was not what they wanted to see but Osaka dug deep to take the game to deuce. She even had a chance to hold but her inconsistency - she would make 32 unforced errors overall - struck again, a third match point against her proving too much as her return flew wide of the tramlines. Asked what went wrong, Osaka concluded: “Everything - if you watch the match then you would probably see. I feel like there’s a lot of things that I counted on that I couldn’t rely on today.”
It was hoped that Osaka could unite a divided Japan - but there was no such luck for Tokyo organisers
Pippa Field, in Tokyo
After an Olympic Games dogged by so many controversies and set-backs, local organisers had pinned their hopes on the sport - and rather more specifically, Naomi Osaka - coming through to rescue face among the Japanese population. So to say her third-round exit was a blow would be putting it mildly.
The four-time Grand Slam winner admitted after her second round win that she "put pressure on herself" to do well, but, in truth, that was nothing compared to the weight bearing down on her shoulders from an entire nation.
This was a player who had not played in eight weeks, since withdrawing from the French Open at the end of May for mental-health reasons. She skipped the grass court season and Wimbledon, with the focus being on coming good on the heavy favourite tag that had been slapped on the 23-year-old, born in Japan to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, ever since the countdown to Tokyo began.
Organisers threw her straight back into the spotlight, too, picking her to light the Olympic flame to officially begin the Games. She would have been able to decline, for sure, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and Osaka, for all that it further heaped more responsibility on her as the face of these Games, was rightly entitled to take up the honour, too.
Her smooth progress through the opening two rounds, while top seeds such as Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek stumbled and fell, further dialled up the volume on the golden expectations. Here she was playing on the hard court surface that she has made her own, winning two Australian Open and two US Open titles in the last three years.
Before her exit, Japan had already managed to accrue eight golds in the first three days of their home Olympics, just four shy of their overall tally in Rio five years ago.
But an Osaka gold was the moment the nation craved the most, a moment of celebration for their heroine. That they won't get it will be viewed by many as a catastrophe.