Naomi Osaka showed up ready to pursue gold — and ready to face the media

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·4 min read

TOKYO — It wasn't what some media members were looking for — there was grumbling about its brevity — but Naomi Osaka did talk to media after her first-round Olympic tournament win on Sunday.

In her first match since the first round of the French Open eight weeks ago, when she sent sports media and the game's gatekeepers into a tailspin by choosing her own mental health over news conferences, Osaka left centre court at the Ariake Tennis Park with a workwoman-like 6-1, 6-4 win over China's Seisei Zheng.

She spoke on court with the three major broadcast rights holders for the Games, including NBC, and then reported to the mixed zone, where interviews happen at many international events. Osaka seemed uneasy but certainly pleasant as she fielded questions in English and Japanese, though she answered only in English. (Osaka said in a newly released Netflix documentary that she speaks Japanese with her mother and sister, but is too nervous about mistakes with her grammatical structure to use it much in public.)

It was a welcome surprise that she chatted with media at all — word on Saturday was that it was unclear whether she would — and hopefully a sign that Osaka is in a better place mentally than she was in Paris, when she declared on the eve of the tournament that she wasn't going to do post-match conferences and then pulled out after winning in Round 1 when all four Grand Slams threatened to sanction her if she didn't abide by their rules.

"I don't feel that weird about it. It might feel weird to you guys but ... I'm happy that, I guess, you guys are asking me questions," Osaka told one of the small clusters of reporters. "But more than anything I was just focused on playing tennis and I feel a little bit out of my body right now."

Naomi Osaka spoke with media after her first-round win at the Olympics. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Naomi Osaka spoke with media after her first-round win at the Olympics. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Wearing braids threaded with red and white, the colors of Japan's flag, Osaka faced Zheng in the oppressive midday Tokyo heat. Their match began just after 1 p.m. with the temperature at 90 degrees but a "feels like" of 96 degrees due to the humidity. And since it was the middle of the day, there was no shade on the court to speak of, save for the large umbrellas players sat under during their brief crossover breaks.

Heat or not, two-month break or not, Osaka took the first set in just 32 minutes, her power often just too much for Zheng, ranked No. 52 in the world, to handle.

In the second set, up 3-2 and serving Osaka won a game at love, running Zheng all over the court. 

Credit to Zheng as she didn't go down without a fight. With Osaka up 5-3 in the second she served to stay alive and fought off two match points to win the game. 

Osaka closed things out on her serve, on four straight points.

"I felt a little bit like a giraffe all night, so I'm glad I at least appeared like I was sharp," she told NBC.

Osaka, 23, was born in the port city of Osaka, located about 310 miles west of Tokyo, to a Japanese mother and Haitian father before moving to the United States as a toddler. She lit the cauldron at the Opening Ceremony Friday night. She has always played for Japan in international matches.

Unsure at first that she could reveal the detail, she said she was asked if she'd accept the honor back in March, around the time of the Miami Open. 

"For me right now I feel very, very proud," she told media. "When I lit the flame I was super honored. That's a position that you dream about and not anyone can do it and so for me, when they asked me if I wanted to, I was very surprised, very honored, and I'm just happy to be here and happy to play, especially in Tokyo."

Osaka said more than once that she was nervous to play again, and that her body feels fine. There were things she felt she did "a bit wrong" against Zheng and will look to improve as she continues to play here.

With Australia's Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1 seed, upset by Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo in the match before hers on Sunday, the second-seeded Osaka now becomes the gold medal favorite at +175, according to BetMGM. Japan has never medaled in women's tennis.

Osaka faces Switzerland's Viktorija Golubic, currently ranked 50th in the world, in the second round. The two have never met. 

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