Reporting from Tokyo
TOKYO — Finally, the biggest star of the Tokyo Olympics spoke, ending the awkward two-month silence that had stirred debates on mental health.
Naomi Osaka may not have communicated via media since she was fined by the French Open organisers for refusing to do press duties on 31 May, but the Japanese idol was near ubiquitous at this Games.
An Olympic ad showing the 23-year-old exhorting youngsters to dare to be different is played before every event, while her lighting of the Olympic cauldron was an indelible image plastered across the Japanese newspapers.
On Sunday (25 July), however, Osaka stepped gamely into the "cauldron" of the media mixed zone at the Ariake Tennis Park - where scores of journalists awaited her - and smiled her way through giving mundane answers about her routine 6-1, 6-4 first-round women's singles win over China's Zheng Saisai.
With all the recording devices placed on trays as reporters were barricaded metres away from her due to social distancing, she was asked about her mental state after her media silence.
"The break I took was very needed. I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and happy again," she said.
How does she rate her court performance?
"I felt really nervous being in Japan and playing here for the first time in maybe two years. I am glad I was able to win."
How does she feel about lighting the Olympic cauldron?
"Very proud. Super honoured. That's a position that you dream about, so when they asked me to do it, I was very, very surprised."
With that, her minders thanked the media and whisked her off, leaving the journalists bemused at the surreal encounter.
Still, the sight of a relaxed Osaka making her media rounds was a marked improvement from her French Open pullout, as she cited mental depression for her initial decision to stop all post-match interviews at Roland Garros.
Her subsequent withdrawal from Wimbledon last month fuelled more uncertainty as to whether she will take part at the Olympics. Had she decided to give the Games a miss, it would have been a shattering blow to the organisers banking on her immense popularity in Japan to draw in the TV audience.
But here she was, and she was her usual dominant self on the centre court, thumping powerful and accurate forehands that bamboozled her opponent as she raced to a 5-0 first-set lead and never looked back.
Whether she will continue to engage the media in the later, more intense rounds remains to be seen.
Barty shuns press after shock opening-round defeat
While Osaka appeared to be in a good mood after her win, Wimbledon champion and world No.1 Ashleigh Barty cut a contrasting figure after being upset 4-6, 3-6 by Spain's world No.48 Sara Sorribes Tormo in her opening match to crash out of the women's singles competition.
The 25-year-old was in no mood to entertain the press journalists after fulfilling her broadcast media obligations, striding hurriedly away without even a glance.
Barty would have been upset about her error-prone game in the baking noon heat, as she committed 27 unforced errors while her far-steadier opponent had just five. While she showed glimpses of the brilliant shot-making that has already won her two Grand Slam titles, it was not enough to overcome a pumped-up Sorribes Tormo.
""It just wasn’t my day," she told the official Olympic media service.
"I never really felt comfortable out there and wasn’t able to play the match on my terms. The key to my game is serving well and I wasn’t able to do that. I was a bit erratic and made too many errors.
"I felt like I had to be aggressive, and (Sara) made me press and overplay."
Barty is still in contention in the women's doubles with partner Storm Sanders, after they negotiated their first-round tie with ease on Saturday, beating Japan's Nao Hibino and Makoto Ninomiya 6-1, 6-2.
Nonetheless, the top seed's early exit leaves the women's singles competition wide open, even with second-seeded Osaka now the favourite to win the gold medal.
She may have to contend with the third seed Karolina Pliskova, whom Barty had beaten at the Wimbledon final. The tall Czech star had little problem dispatching France's Alize Cornet 6-1, 6-2 at Court Two, and looked to build on her fine recent form to contend for gold.
The Olympic tennis competition, which had already been hit by star pullouts (Serena Williams and Roger Federer) and COVID-19 withdrawals (Coco Gauff and Johanna Konta), suffered another blow when defending men's singles champion Andy Murray dropped out on the advice of his medical staff.
The three-time Grand Slam winner will instead focus on the doubles competition with Joe Salisbury.
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