Tokyo Olympics: Naomi Osaka makes tennis return to lift Japan and its beleaguered Games

Osaka beat China’s Zheng Saisai 6-1, 6-4 in the first round of the women’s tennis singles, her first match for 57 days

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Sunday 25 July 2021 13:54
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<p>Naomi Osaka serves during Sunday’s first-round match against Zheng Saisai of China</p>

Naomi Osaka serves during Sunday’s first-round match against Zheng Saisai of China

All it took was one 168km/h ace rocketed down the middle to know that Naomi Osaka was back where she wanted to be. After seeing off Patricia Maria Tig in the first round of the French Open, a toss, tilt of the head whipping back that braided red and black hair and crunch through the core of the ball that threatened to slice it in half, Osaka had her first competitive point in 57 days. Her first of Tokyo 2020.

There would only be one other ace as she beat China’s Zheng Saisai 6-1, 6-4. A demolition looked on the cards when the first set was wrapped up in 34 minutes. The second, though closer, was never really that close. You would not call this a statement win, not least because the bigger statement was that Osaka was there at all, dictating from the baseline and occasionally darting to the net in a manner that suggested it was fuelled by want rather than necessity.

Much has been spoken, written and watched of the 23-year-old. And though it is hard not to consume it all, particularly the Netflix documentary that bears her name, it is harder not to come away and wonder how much we actually do know of her, and indeed what we should know of her.

If you want to get to grips with what it is “being” Naomi Osaka, how about that this was her first on-court appearance since pulling out of the French Open after refusing to partake in media engagements because they were having a negative effect on her mental health? Her first public appearance since then, however, was just a couple of days ago when, literally in front of the world, she lit the Olympic flame.

Osaka was due on court on Saturday morning before news came through of a 24-hour postponement early on Friday afternoon. Those within the International Tennis Federation overseeing this tournament were told of the need to reschedule that morning, without expressly being told what her duties would be. Given she’s not the stage type of performer - she admits to being a bad singer - and probably not too hot with a drone, never mind almost 2,000 of them, many twigged that not wanting an early start meant a late finish the night before. As she revealed herself as the last leg of a torch relay fraught with uncertainty, at times removed entirely from the public eye, well... who better?

She revealed in the mixed zone the honour was actually put to her back around March while she was in Miami. And it confirms what we know of the group around her that it was kept secret for almost five months.

“Right now, I feel very, very proud,” she said. “When I lit the flame, I was super honoured. You know that is a position you dream about and not everyone can do it. When they asked me if I wanted to, I was very surprised but very honoured and happy to be here and happy to play, especially in Tokyo.”

Even with the public barred from every part of the Ariake Tennis complex, even as they tried to lean in to catch a glimpse of anyone carrying a tennis racket, the hot air of Centre Court was warmed further by cheers for winners and whoops for the odd flash of magic from Osaka’s wrists. The staff members charged with guarding doors to prevent any wandering distractions mid-rally were crowded at the mouths of the entrances that open out to the hard yet two-paced blue surface. More senior administrative types with a bit more license occupied the countless free seats under the shade at both ends.

Perhaps if anyone else was out there they would have been asked to move on, to get in with their jobs. But there was no pretence needed. They were all there for their Osaka, just as we were all there for her.

As the match wore on, she began indulging the odd flourish. A memorable whipped backhand into the corner of the service box as she advanced to the net felt like a single moment to alert Saisai that whatever pluck she had rediscovered in the second set was never going to be enough. Then again, there were three separate string-on-palm applauses when the 49-ranked 27-year-old bested her superior opponent on both angles with a serve out wide and then backhand to the opposite side, nailed a lob and then did Osaka with the eyes on a cleverly disguised backhand.

After giving up two match points, Osaka turned on the jets to win the 17th and final game to love. And within 30 minutes of leaving the court, she strolled into a packed mixed zone for her three hits of media.

“Honestly I don’t feel that weird about it,” she answered with a grin when asked if all this felt comfortable. “It might feel weird to you guys.

“I’m happy, I guess, that you guys are asking me questions but more than anything I was just focusing on playing tennis. I feel a little bit out of my body right now.”

Since Osaka turned the focus onto the media at the start of June, there has been plenty of navel-gazing amid blind defence of the press, by the press. In turn, conversations have been endless around the right and wrong ways of dealing with stars, particularly young ones whose talent puts them in unique situations in which very few personalities can cope. One aspect of an athlete’s fame is that achieving more of what you want directly correlates with bringing you more of what you don’t.

Thankfully, though, Osaka still wants this. Not just tennis, but this: to be a champion, to carry the hopes of her country. To be the one to win gold and boost a Games and a nation that feels battered and bruised already. To light a flame.

Her chances of doing that got a little better when Australian world No 1 Ash Barty crashed out to Sarah Tormo Sorribes. The recent Wimbledon champion was done in straight sets by the Spaniard just 30 minutes before Osaka tossed that ball in the air to start her campaign with a bang.

The path is a little clearer for Osaka. And after 57 days, tennis is that little better.

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