Naomi Osaka’s bid to become the first Japanese player ever to win tennis Olympic gold came to a abrupt halt as she was beaten in straight sets by Marketa Vondrousova in the last-16.
The Games was Osaka’s first tournament since withdrawing from both the French Open and Wimbledon, citing her struggles with depression and anxiety. She had lit the cauldron in the opening ceremony last week and was Japan’s poster girl of their home Olympics.
Osaka, the world No 2 and a four-time Grand Slam champion, was considered the tennis tournament favourite once Wimbledon champion and world No 1 Ash Barty suffered a shock round one exit but she admitted pressure got to her today.
Vondrousova, who reached the final of the French Open in 2019, was ruthless in her execution and having took the first set 6-1 in just 24 minutes, she held her nerve in the second set to run out 6-1, 6-4 winner.
Having ended her media boycott when she arrived at this tournament it appeared it was back on as Osaka, 23, made a hasty exit after the loss. But she returned for a couple of questions in what is one of the biggest shocks of the tennis tournament so far.
‘I feel like I should be used to (the pressure) by now,’ she said.
‘But at the same time, the scale of everything has been a bit hard because of the break that I took. I am glad I didn’t lose in the first round at least.’
Naomi Osaka was a shock elimination in the women’s singles as she was beaten in straight sets
Osaka swiftly departed the court and did not stop to speak to reporters after the match
So much was made of Osaka returning to court for this tournament.
It was Osaka who chose to withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon with growing concerns over her mental health.
She pointed to press conferences increasing ‘anxiety’ and so when she spoke to media members and said she was ‘glad’ they were asking her questions after her first-round win, it appeared she was in a good place.
But a bitterly disappointed Osaka left the the Ariake Tennis Park within minutes of her defeat to Vondrousova, avoiding media members in the mixed zone before making a return to answer Japanese and English questions.
Just 24 hours ago she was desperately trying to play down talk she was walking towards the gold medal.
Marketa Vondrousova was ruthless in her execution as she toyed with Osaka on Centre Court
The 23-year-old chose to end her media boycott at the Tokyo Games as she spoke on TV after her second round win but she again avoided reporters after her defeat in the round of 16
‘Well you know, definitely it would mean a lot for me to win gold here but I know it’s a process,’ she said.
‘You know, these are the best players in the world and I honestly haven’t played in a while so I’m trying to keep it one match at a time. All in all, I’m just really happy to be here.’
The Japanese star won her first match in eight weeks against Zheng Saisai on Sunday in the first round, saying she felt refreshed and happy after stepping away from the court.
Osaka’s decision to address the media after her win over Saisai marked the end of the media boycott that saw her withdraw from the French Open and Wimbledon.
‘For me, honestly I don’t feel that weird about it,’ she said of ending her media silence on Sunday.
Osaka looked out of sorts and lost the first set in a staggering 24 minutes with errors piling up
Osaka was tasked to light the Olympic flame at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic ceremony on Friday
‘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.
‘I guess I feel a little bit out of my body right now.’
There were a few understandable signs of rust even after her wins and Osaka could not match the intensity she showed on Monday to beat Viktorija Golubic.
Osaka was carrying the weight of a nation on her shoulders, not least because she had spent recent weeks out of the game – and the spotlight.
At the French Open, Osaka stunned the sport by withdrawing from the Grand Slam to focus on her mental health.
She was fined $15,000 for skipping a press conference and with the threat of disqualification looming for further breaches she decided to withdraw herself.
In the end the Grand Slams all vowed to ‘improve the player experience’.
Osaka also elected to stay away from Wimbledon but was never going to miss the chance to play at a home Olympics.
The Japanese star elected to withdraw from the French Open due to mental health worries
Osaka’s relationship with the Japanese public is complicated.
She is a leading light in Japan’s ever-changing society, but is seen as a ‘hafu’ – literally meaning ‘half’, a reference to having some non-Japanese heritage. Osaka has a Japanese mother and a Haitian father and has grown up in the United States since she was a toddler. She was born in Chūō-ku, Osaka.
‘[My opponent] was talking with another Japanese girl, and they didn’t know that I was listening [or that] I spoke Japanese,’ Osaka told the Wall Street Journal last year, when asked if she had any incidents of discrimination in her youth.
‘Her friend asked her who she was playing, so she said Osaka. And her friend says, ”Oh, that black girl. Is she supposed to be Japanese?” And then the girl that I was playing was like, ”I don’t think so”.’
In a docuseries released on Netflix earlier this month Osaka continued to shed light on her experience of declaring her citizenship as Japanese and the issues it through up.
‘So I don’t choose America, and suddenly people are like, ”Your Black card is revoked”,’ Osaka said.
‘And it’s like, African-American isn’t the only Black, you know? I don’t know, I feel like people don’t know the difference between nationality and race.’
Japan has historically been an incredibly homogeneous state. A 2018 census reported that 97.8 per cent of the population is determined as ‘Japanese’.
That can be misleading as that figure means ‘Citizen of Japan’ rather than an individual’s ethnicity. But even when referring to ‘Yamato’ Japanese – defined as ‘a person whose origin is the Japanese mainland’ – figures still estimate that 90 per cent of the population are of Yamato descent.
Osaka has become the first female black athlete to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition (left), and also appeared in Time magazine talking about mental health
Osaka, the first Asian to reach world No 1, appears on the cover of the August edition of Japanese Vogue, and is seen promoting her Barbie doll, which immediately sold out online
Back in February, Osaka also spoke out and welcomed the resignation of former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori as the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee.
Mori was shamed for saying women ‘talk too much’ and was dismissed.
‘I feel like it’s really good because you’re pushing forward, barriers are being broken down, especially for females,’ Osaka said. ‘We’ve had to fight for so many things just to be equal. Even a lot of things we still aren’t equal.’
After receiving some criticism for her withdrawals from the French Open and Wimbledon, Osaka was also recently involved in another row over her appearance on the front cover of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Osaka hit back at Megyn Kelly after the former Fox News star criticised her for appearing on the cover after citing media pressure as the reason for her withdrawals. Osaka is the first female black athlete to star on the cover of the swimsuit edition.
She is one of three women featured – the others being Megan Thee Stallion, the first rapper to feature, and Leyna Bloom, the first transgender cover model.
Another conservative commentator Clay Travis said on Twitter: ‘Since saying she’s too introverted to talk to the media after tennis matches, Naomi Osaka has launched a reality show, a Barbie, and now is on the cover of the SI swimsuit issue.’
And Megyn Kelly weighed in, retweeting Travis and addinging: ‘Let’s not forget the cover of (& interview in) Vogue Japan and Time Mag!’
But Osaka, who will be at the Tokyo Olympics representing Japan hit back, blasting: ‘Seeing as you’re a journalist I would’ve assumed you would take the time to research what the lead times are for magazines, if you did that you would’ve found out I shot all of my covers last year.
‘Instead your first reaction is to hop on here and spew negativity, do better Megan.’