Osaka: mental health struggles made it tougher to deal with being poster girl of Tokyo 2020

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Osaka, 23, slumped to a straight sets defeat against Marketa Vondrousova on home soil
Osaka, 23, slumped to a straight sets defeat against Marketa Vondrousova on home soil

Naomi Osaka feels her mental health break made it harder to deal with being the face of the Olympic Games, writes Tom Harle.

Tears were shed in Tokyo when the Games poster girl went down 6-1 6-4 to Marketa Vondrousova in the third round.

On a day of rain and high winds in the host city, the flame she lit on Friday night flickered out for a split second when she hit a backhand long.

Osaka admitted to herself and the watching world that she was blinded by stepping back into the limelight.

When asked whether pressure played a role in her defeat, she said: “Yes and no.

“I feel like I should be used to it by now but at the same time, I think the scale of everything is a bit hard because of the break that I took.

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TOKYO 2020 OLYMPICS - NAOMI OSAKA CRASHES OUT, TEAM GB GLORY IN POOL, TRIATHLON DRAMA - MORNING UPDATE

“I’m glad I didn’t lose in the first round at least.”

18 unforced errors - three times as many as her opponent - spoke to a mental struggle and her power game was nowhere to be seen, hitting only two forehand winners.

Osaka broke her mass media silence after beating Zheng Saisai and Viktorija Golubic in straight sets in the first two rounds.

Journalists assembled at Ariake Tennis Park thought the blanket had been thrown over them again when media personnel suggested Osaka had left the facility.

It turned out she had adjourned to a practice area and returned to speak to TV cameras, English language and Japanese media.

“I’m really glad to be here,” she told Japan’s national press with more than a hint of emotion at the sight of the 20 searching faces staring at her.

“I’m sad that I lost of course but all in all, really happy with my first Olympic experience.”

What then of Vondrousova, a plucky Czech southpaw who reached the semi-finals of the 2019 French Open.

The 22-year-old pulled off a perfect gameplan to stop Osaka, making liberal use of her drop shot and studding longer rallies with slices.

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TOKYO 2020 OLYMPIC GAMES - MAGIC MONDAY WRAP - RE-LIVE EVERY MEDAL ON A HISTORIC DAY FOR TEAM GB

She paid the home hero an ultimate compliment on the court and then off it.

“I’ve beaten Serena twice but she (Osaka) is the greatest now, for sure, the greatest in the game,” said Vondrousova.

It was also clear to her from across the net that Osaka was battling more than a player ranked 42 in the world.

She was shouldering the expectation of 125 million people and a diaspora who will have been tucked up in bed when she exited.

“I felt she was under pressure,” said Vondrousova, with the match shown live on Eurosport and discovery+.

“For her, it’s tough to play in Japan at the Olympics.

“I would say I’m really sorry to people in Japan, but I’m just too happy with my game.”

Vondrousova admitted she had no concept of how she would respond if this were Prague and she was on every billboard in town.

“I can’t imagine that kind of pressure,” she said.

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TOKYO 2020 - 'THE SUPPORT'S BEEN INCREDIBLE' - ADAM PEATY SOAKS IN HIS SECOND OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL

“I know how hard it is to be under pressure but she is the face of the Olympics.

“She didn’t play a bad match, she was fighting and staying calm. She never gave up so that was very nice I think.”

The top two players in the world are out of the women’s singles tournament, and with Elena Svitolina now the star attraction don’t expect it to get much airtime in Japan or beyond.

Japan have had some wonderful moments at this Games already, with eight gold medals at the time Osaka went out, and there is a palpable sense of shock that Osaka won’t be another.

When asked about her plans before she defends the US Open title, she said: “I’m the sort of person that wings a lot of things. That’s either a really good thing or a really bad thing.”

It’s hard to know what the next chapter in the Osaka story has in store. It’s clear that she’ll write it in her own wonderful, flawed, human style.

Stream every unmissable moment of Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 live on discovery+, The Streaming Home of the Olympics.

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