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'Happy again:' Naomi Osaka returns to tennis with dominant victory in Olympic opener

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TOKYO – The world has seen Naomi Osaka in the middle of a controversy over press conferences, on magazine covers, in a Netflix documentary and on the biggest Olympic stage possible lighting the torch for the Opening Ceremony in her home country of Japan.

What we haven’t seen much of lately is Osaka on the tennis court.

As she demonstrated on Sunday, it’s often a great look.

Back on hard courts, where she has been the world’s best player over the last year, Osaka powered to a 6-1, 6-4 first round victory over Zheng Saisai of China and left little doubt about her form as she begins one of the most pressure-packed tournaments of her career.

“For me I feel like more than anything I’m just focused on playing tennis,” Osaka said. “Playing the Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a kid so I feel like the break I took was very needed but I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and happy again.”

Osaka, ranked No. 2 in the world, came into the Olympics as the gold medal favorite not just because she’s ostensibly the face of these Tokyo Games but because of her record on a hard surface where she’s won all four of her Grand Slam titles including the U.S. Open last fall and the Australian Open this year.

Naomi Osaka, representing the host country at the Tokyo Games, started of with a convincing victory Sunday.
Naomi Osaka, representing the host country at the Tokyo Games, started of with a convincing victory Sunday.

Of course, a lot has happened since Osaka lifted the trophy in Melbourne.

After a rare hard court loss to Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals at Miami, Osaka struggled in her transition to the European clay court season and lost early in Madrid and Rome. Heading into the French Open, she announced that she would not participate in the required media availabilities at the tournament, drawing backlash from various corners and a harsh rebuke by the French Tennis Federation and the other Grand Slam sanctioning bodies, including a threat to default her from events if she did not comply.

Osaka subsequently withdrew from Roland Garros, revealing that she struggled with depression. She has not played a competitive match since then, and it was uncertain whether she would take questions from the media here.

But after her match, Osaka was shepherded through the mixed zone where reporters are stationed as athletes come off the court. After two questions each from the wire services, from English-speaking media and from Japanese media, International Tennis Federation press officials rushed her away.

“For me, honestly I don’t feel that weird about it,” Osaka said about speaking with the news media again. “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 also revealed during her 43-second session with the English-speaking media that she was asked sometime in March about lighting the Olympic flame and had to keep it a secret all the way until Friday.

“I was super honored,” she said. “That’s a position you dream about and not anyone can do it so when they asked me if I wanted to I was very surprised but very honored and I’m just happy to be here and happy to play, especially in Tokyo.”

Given all that’s happened over the past two months, it was unclear how sharp Osaka would be against the 52nd-ranked Zheng. But right from the first point of the match, when Osaka belted an ace, she was fully in control of her game and able to play offense nearly every point with either her serve or her forehand.

After a 32-minute first set in which Osaka faced zero pressure, Zheng was finally able to apply a bit with break points at 3-4 to level the second set. But Osaka swatted them away with a series of forehand winners, then closed it out routinely on her next opportunity to serve.

With No. 1 Ash Barty’s loss in the first round earlier Sunday, Osaka is the top seed remaining in the field. She’ll play Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic, a surprise Wimbledon quarterfinalist this year, in the second round.

“I just felt really nervous,” she said. “I haven’t played since France so there are things I felt like I did a bit wrong but I’m hoping I can improve in the matches I continue playing.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 2021 Olympics: Naomi Osaka returns to tennis with dominant victory