Since last competing on May 30 in Paris, Osaka has been seen literally everywhere — in a Netflix series, on the cover of Vogue, Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine, on social media launching her own Barbie doll line. Everywhere, except on a tennis court.
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By Rutvick Mehta, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 25, 2021 08:27 PM IST
Naomi Osaka stood cross-legged, bottle of water in her right hand, microphone placed right in front of her face, mobile cameras and recorders all pointed towards her from a distance. After winning her first-round match at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday, Osaka made a brief halt at the mixed media zone. “I’m happy that I guess you guys are asking me questions,” she said.
Well, that was different.
So was the sight of Osaka playing tennis. Since last competing on May 30 in Paris, Osaka has been seen literally everywhere — in a Netflix series, on the cover of Vogue, Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine, on social media launching her own Barbie doll line. Everywhere, except on a tennis court.
A two-month absence on the professional tour by an elite player isn’t uncommon, but Osaka’s self-scripted, self-exile tale was. The world No. 2 pulled out before her second round at the French Open, citing issues battling anxiety and mental health. It was a day after the tournament officials threatened severe action, including disqualification, if she continued with her decision made before the tournament of not speaking to the media. Osaka justified shunning press conferences by saying she wouldn’t wish to “subject myself to people that doubt me”.
At the Tokyo Olympics, she did — not to the people who doubt her (one assumes) but to the press in general. Unlike in Grand Slams that mandate all players to attend post-match press conferences or risk hefty fines, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has no such obligation for athletes during the Games. Yet, that didn’t stop Osaka from stopping by at the mixed zone, where reporters gather to grab a quote or two after the match.
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They got a bit more than that. But after a few questions from the English and local media, the International Tennis Federation press officials whisked Osaka away.
“For me, honestly I don’t feel that weird about it,” Osaka said about talking to the media again. “…more than anything I was just focused on playing tennis. I guess I feel a little bit out of my body right now.
“I feel like the break that I took was very needed, but I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and happy again.”
It was evident. Two days ago, the Japanese was in the spotlight again, becoming the first tennis player to light the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony of her home Games — for which she was approached in March by the organisers, she revealed. She embraced her moment of history. On Sunday, the spotlight returned to her tennis. Draped in a bright red outfit with braids and a cap of the same colour to mirror the Japan national flag, Osaka looked more at ease, and played every bit like a four-time Grand Slam champion in her 6-1, 6-4 win against China’s Zheng Saisai.
Those flat forehand winners — she produced 11 of them on Sunday, most crucially while facing break points in the second set — were whizzing past her opponent on the fast hard courts, on which she has won all four of her Slams. After wrapping up the opener in less than 90 minutes, the smile was back on Osaka’s face. That’s another win.