Naomi Osaka ‘refreshed and happy’ as she kicks off Olympic campaign with dominant win over Saisai Zheng

Two days after lighting the cauldron at the opening ceremony – a moment she called the “greatest sporting achievement and honor” of her life – Osaka took to the tennis court for her first match in nearly two months Sunday, beating China’s Saisai Zheng 6-1 6-4 on center court at Ariake Tennis Park.

Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty’s surprise loss to Sara Sorribes Tormo earlier on Sunday means Osaka is now the top player in the women’s draw in her bid to become the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic tennis medal.

The four-time Grand Slam champion had not played since her withdrawal from Roland Garros at the end of May, which followed her decision not to undertake media duties for mental health reasons.

She also chose not to play at Wimbledon, but arrived in Tokyo rejuvenated and ready to make her mark.

“This, playing in the Olympics, has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, so I felt like the break I took was really needed,” Osaka, 23, told reporters. “I definitely feel a little refreshed and happy again.”

Osaka hits a forehand as she makes a winning start at the Tokyo Olympics.

Cooking heat

The extreme heat and humidity proved to be a challenge for tennis players in Tokyo, and the Osaka game took place in sweltering midday heat, occasionally interrupted when a light breeze swept across the court.

His entry was greeted by an enthusiastic stadium announcer and a handful of applause from the nearly empty stands, which mainly included teammates, officials and members of the media.

Despite her absence from the tour, Osaka showed few signs of rusting as she opened her Olympic campaign, going through the opener with three aces, before breaking Zheng twice to take a 4-0 lead in the first set. .

World No.52 Zheng, who is competing in her second Olympics, had the opportunity to fall back in Game 5, only for Osaka to hold on and finish the first set in just 32 minutes.

That dominance continued into the second set as Osaka got another early serve break, but this time Zheng was able to gain more footing and had two break points to tie the set at 4-3.

However, that turned out to be only a ray of hope, as Osaka rebounded to win the match and, soon after, the match.

“I felt really nervous to be in Japan and play here for the first time in maybe two years, and that this would be my first Olympics,” Osaka said. “It was really very nerve-racking. But I’m glad I got to win, he’s a very tough opponent.”

Osaka put in an impressive service performance against Zheng.

History maker

The match, originally scheduled for Saturday, was postponed until Sunday before the opening ceremony, fueling speculation that Osaka, who was born in Japan and moved to the United States at the age of three, could have been selected. to light the cauldron.

She duly did so, joining boxer Muhammad Ali – at the Atlanta Games in 1996 – and Cathy Freeman four years later in Sydney to take part in a historic moment that will long be remembered.

Osaka is also the first tennis player to have the honor of lighting the cauldron.

“Naomi Osaka is a home favorite and a lot of eyes are on her,” said men’s world number one Novak Djokovic after his victory on Saturday.

“Being at home playing is very stressful, but it’s good for our sport in general to see that there is a lot of attention being paid to it.”

Osaka is one of Japan’s star athletes, her face displayed on billboards all around Tokyo and local media have celebrated the decision to make her the last torchbearer of these Olympics.

The Nikkei newspaper called it a moment of “diversity and harmony”, while Mainichi Shimbun described how top athletes with roots overseas “symbolized diversity, one of the visions of the Olympic Games” .

Despite his nerves on his Olympic debut, Osaka looked calm on the court. She will then face Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic for a place in the third round of a women’s draw with no number of big names, including Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka, Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu.

This, however, is unlikely to prevent local fans, who are being kept away from Tokyo venues amid the pandemic, from closely monitoring the tournament and Osaka’s progress.

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