TOKYO — Naomi Osaka shied away from no one in her return to competitive tennis Sunday at Ariake Tennis Park after a nearly two-month mental health break.
How does it feel to be here and to be amid the press after everything that happened the past two months? Went the first query, an admirable summation of Osaka’s decision to skip post-match news conferences at the French Open, which led to her withdrawal from the tournament, which preceded her decision not to play Wimbledon.
“Um, for me, honestly, I don’t feel that weird about it,” Osaka said. “It might feel weird to you guys, but, I don’t know. I’m happy that I guess you guys are asking me questions. But more than anything, I was just focused on playing tennis, and I guess I feel a little bit out of my body right now.”
Osaka’s out-of-body feelings might owe to the fact that she is returning from hiatus facing a task greater than just playing tennis — which she did solidly against Zheng, kicking things off with three aces in the opening four points.
The 23-year-old is in Tokyo as the Japanese face of these Tokyo Olympics. She cemented that role when she lit the Olympic cauldron near the end of the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night.
And given her background (born in Japan, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father), Osaka wasn’t just representing the height of Japan’s athletic offerings. She symbolized how Japan wants the world to see it: young, multicultural and commanding of a global audience.
Osaka found out in March she would perform the job. She was honored.
“Right now I feel very, very proud,” she said in response to a question in Japanese. “I think when I lit the flame, I was super honored. You know, that’s a position that you dream about, and not anyone can do it and so for me, when they asked me if they wanted to, I was very surprised but very honored, and I’m just happy to be here and happy to play, especially in Tokyo.”
Osaka is ubiquitous here. A picture of her face adorns the side of the Panasonic building near the Games’ central media hub. Her three-part Netflix documentary debuted in the days before the Olympics began, and she appeared on at least two major magazine covers timed to the Games as well: Vogue Japan and Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Her return to the court drew at least twice as many reporters into the Tokyo heat as did world No. 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty’s.
But Osaka is used to playing through the pressure. The No. 2 seed overpowered Zheng on Sunday after warming up with Coach Wim Fissette, who is accompanying her in Tokyo, winning the first set in 35 minutes.
She upped her game to match Zheng’s improvement in the second set, winning 79 percent of points on her first serve.
“I felt fine, like, there’s nothing wrong with my body,” Osaka said in response to the second Japanese question. “I just felt really nervous, like, I haven’t played since France. There are definitely things that I felt I did a bit wrong, but I’m hoping that I can improve in the matches that I continue playing.”
Osaka moves through the draw as even more of a favorite than she was entering. Barty, the top seed in Tokyo and the reigning Wimbledon champion, fell to No. 48 Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, 6-4, 6-3, earlier in the day.
Barty, an Australian, still has a chance to medal in the women’s doubles competition with partner Storm Sanders.
“I never really felt comfortable out there and wasn’t able to play the match on my terms,” Barty said. “The key to my game is serving well, and I wasn’t able to do that. I was a bit erratic and made too many errors. The match was always going to be challenging. I felt like I had to be aggressive, and she made me press and overplay.”
The major news out of the men’s singles tournament wasn’t an upset but a withdrawal. Two-time gold medalist Andy Murray pulled out of the competition because of a right quadriceps strain, but he will continue with partner Joe Salisbury in men’s doubles. Murray has a mixed doubles silver medal from the London Games in 2012, so a medal in men’s doubles would complete the trifecta.
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The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.