Naomi Osaka wins first-round match at Olympics, then breaks her silence with media

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Naomi Osaka, of Japan, serves to China's Zheng Saisai.
Naomi Osaka serves during her first-round win over Zheng Saisai at the Tokyo Olympic Games on Sunday. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

Naomi Osaka, this country’s most famous athlete, first emerged on Centre Court at Ariake Tennis Park on Sunday at 10 a.m. in a gray T-shirt, black leggings and neon orange sneakers.

The leggings were brave. The sun was already grilling the blue hard court as the temperature crept toward 90 degrees. English-language pop music echoed through the nearly empty stadium. She slammed serves for a half-hour before dipping from the muggy heat.

She returned just before 1 p.m. wearing a red dress with a Japanese flag stitched onto the left side of the chest and a red visor over her red boxed braids for her first competitive match since withdrawing from the French Open in May. And she didn’t skip a beat after the two-month break, throttling the 52nd-ranked Zheng Saisai in straight sets — 6-1, 6-4 — in 1 hour and 27 minutes.

Osaka, the No. 2 player in the world, overwhelmed Zheng. She served the first of her six aces for the match’s opening point and jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first set. She finished with 25 winners. Zheng had 10. She seemed at ease. She bounced around. She took air backhands and forehands after her rare mistakes. She celebrated executing tough shots with a “Come on!”

Osaka, 23, hadn’t played since causing a stir — and drawing a $15,000 fine — for not speaking to the media following her first-round match in France. She then withdrew, citing concerns over her mental health. She wrote in an Instagram post that she had suffered from bouts of depression since the 2018 U.S. Open. She said she would “take some time away” from tennis. That included skipping Wimbledon.

Minutes after Sunday’s performance, Osaka, who was not obligated to speak to the media, stopped for three different groups of journalists in the mixed zone outside the stadium. She was at ease again.

Naomi Osaka speaks with journalists after her first-round singles win.
Naomi Osaka speaks with journalists after her first-round singles win at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday. (Andrew Dampf / Associated Press)

“The Olympics has been a dream of mine since I was a kid so I feel like the break that I took was very needed,” Osaka said. “I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and I’m happy again.”

The match was originally scheduled for Saturday but moved to Sunday because of Osaka’s participation in the opening ceremony. The late scheduling change was odd considering that Osaka said she accepted the opportunity to light the cauldron in March. The selection solidified Osaka as the host's face of these Games.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father born in Japan and raised in the United States, Osaka also represents part of Japan's efforts to portray a more inclusive Japan.

She is the world's highest-paid female athlete. She has taken the torch from Serena Williams as tennis' most prominent female figure, recently appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. Her three-part Netflix documentary debuted days before the Games. Between the lines, there is immense pressure on her to assume the top spot on the medal podium.

“I feel very, very proud,” Osaka said. “When I lit the flame, I was super honored. That's a position that you dream about and not anyone can do it. And so, for me, 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.”

People weren’t allowed inside Olympic Stadium to watch Osaka spark the symbolic beginning of the Games as the coronavirus continues spreading throughout the country at a troubling rate. They weren’t inside Ariake Tennis Park either.

Osaka’s powerful showing should have elicited a frenzy, but the spectator ban left the 30 rows of blue seats surrounding the court sparsely populated. Light applause for Osaka derived from the event workers, donning Tokyo 2020 polos, gathered at entrances to the stands. The only fans were shown virtually on two screens watching from different countries. Japan, Australia, China and Mexico were among the nations represented.

Osaka will appear again for the people at home to face Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic, the 50th-ranked player in the world, in the second round. She’ll take the court as the clear-cut favorite for gold.

Minutes before her win Sunday, Australia’s Ashleigh Barty, the only player in the world ranked ahead of Osaka, dropped her match against Sara Sorribes of Spain in a stunning upset. Barty won Wimbledon two weeks ago. Osaka wasn’t in that field. She returned Sunday refreshed, happy and dominant.

“I was just focused on playing tennis,” Osaka said, “and I guess I feel a little bit out of my body right now.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.