Tokyo 2020: Naomi Osaka returns to court with opening win

There was a shock defeat for Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty

 

Naomi Osaka returned to the tennis spotlight on and off the court with victory over China’s Zheng Saisai in the opening round in Tokyo.

Two days after lighting the Olympic flame to cement her status as the face of the Games, Osaka was out in an empty stadium for a 6-1 6-4 victory.

The 23-year-old last played a match eight weeks ago before pulling out of the French Open on mental health grounds after announcing she would not be taking part in press conferences.

That prompted a debate that went a lot wider than tennis and added extra intensity to what was already a high pressure environment for Osaka, who is looking to become Japan’s first gold medallist in the sport.

The lack of crowds meant Osaka was able to go about her business in a calm environment on court, with only a smattering of journalists, coaches and other team members in the cavernous arena.

It was a different matter off court, with tickets for the mixed zone — where journalists can ask questions to players — in high demand and social distancing out of the window.

Osaka stopped briefly to talk to two TV channels before doing three short interviews with written press.

“Honestly I don’t feel that weird about it,” she said. “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.”

As a mixed race woman and outspoken advocate on issues of equality and now mental health, Osaka’s starring role in the opening ceremony was an indication that Japanese society is changing.

She revealed she was asked to perform the role in March, saying: “I feel very, very proud. When I lit the flame, I was super honoured.

“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 I’m happy to be here and happy to play, especially in Tokyo.”

In the second round, Osaka will take on Swiss Wimbledon quarter-finalist Viktorija Golubic, with six victories needed to claim gold.

Tokyo 2020

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Much greater challenges lie ahead, and there were signs of understandable rust in the second set against Zheng from Osaka, but it was very much a case of job done as she made it safely over the first hurdle.

Earlier, Wimbledon champion Ashleigh Barty became the first big casualty of the Olympic tennis tournament.

Two weeks after defeating Karolina Pliskova to win her second grand slam title, the Australian was beaten 6-4 6-3 by Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo in the first round.

Barty’s disappointment was evident as she walked through the mixed zone with head down, not stopping to talk to reporters.

It was a huge result for Sorribes Tormo, who has been having an excellent season and beat a world number one for the first time on another day of intense heat and humidity in Tokyo.

Novak Djokovic called for matches to be played later in the day after his first victory but, although the schedule remained the same on Sunday, a concession was made with longer breaks at changes of ends as part of the extreme weather policy.

Pliskova and third seed Aryna Sabalenka would both have been grateful for quick winners — Pliskova beating Alize Cornet 6-1 6-3 and Sabalenka easing past Magda Linette 6-2 6-1.

In the men’s draw, Andy Murray’s bid for a third straight Olympic singles gold medal ended before it began when he withdrew ahead of his first match with a minor thigh strain.

The Scot had been due to take on ninth seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada on Sunday but was replaced on the order of play by Australian Max Purcell.

Murray had been upbeat about his prospects after an excellent doubles victory with Joe Salisbury on Saturday but experienced tightness in his quad muscle and was advised not to try to compete in both events.

Murray and Salisbury’s form on Saturday, when they defeated French Open champions Pierre-Hugues Herbert and Nicolas Mahut, suggested they could be medal contenders.

The three-time grand slam champion said: “I am really disappointed at having to withdraw but the medical staff have advised me against playing in both events, so I have made the difficult decision to withdraw from the singles and focus on playing doubles with Joe.”

Murray is the only tennis player ever to win back-to-back singles gold medals, and it appears highly likely his last chance to add to that haul has now gone.

Speaking after his doubles victory on Saturday, Murray had said: “I do like the conditions here in terms of how the court plays and everything.

“Obviously not an easy one against Felix but I’ve played well in the practice sets and the practice matches that I’ve had and obviously today was a good one for the confidence. I think I’ll be all right.”

But this is yet another physical setback for the Scot, who has been unable to play consistently since his comeback from hip resurfacing surgery two and a half years ago.

There was better news, though, for Liam Broady, who is now the sole British hope in the singles.

The 27-year-old, who is ranked 142, was a very late entry into the field following a raft of withdrawals but made the most of his opportunity, battling to a 7-5 6-7 (4) 6-2 victory over Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo in intense heat.

Cramp was beginning to set in when Broady, from Stockport, finally made it across the line after more than three hours having held two match points in the second set.

He said: “It was brutal. It’s probably one of the first three-set matches I’ve played that has gone over three hours and what conditions to do it in. The third set comes down to a battle of wills and thankfully I won that today.”

Broady must now try to recover ahead of a second-round clash with seventh seed and Wimbledon semi-finalist Hubert Hurkacz.

He said: “My main concern was not wanting (people) to look at me and think I’m making up the numbers. I’m here to compete, I’m here to play and to win matches. I was just hoping I’d acclimatise to the time zone and the heat quick enough.

“It’s been unbelievable, once in a lifetime. I’ve never played an event like it and hopefully will do one more time in my career. I’m just taking everything in and really enjoying it.”

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