Naomi Osaka Returns to the Stage, on Her Terms

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TOKYO — In the early afternoon Sunday, Naomi Osaka walked onto Centre Court at the Ariake Tennis Park to begin her quest for an Olympic gold medal.

She was supposed to play on Saturday, but the match happened to be delayed hours after she stood atop a pyramid built in the shape of Mount Fuji and lit the Olympic cauldron.

Once again, it seemed the sports world was bending in the direction of one of the best tennis players in the game.

It was quite the turn for Osaka, who just seven weeks ago was enduring the first true crisis of her career.

She caused upheaval in the tennis world, and intensified the discussion around athletes and mental health, when she withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon as well after refusing to endure what she called the stress of mandatory news conferences at Grand Slam tournaments.

For a while, the Olympics hung in the balance until she committed to them, unable to pass up representing Japan on home turf.

Then on Friday night, there she was, joining a very short list of Olympic flame lighters that includes Muhammad Ali, Wayne Gretzky, Rafer Johnson and Cathy Freeman, the Australian runner and a singular figure of Indigenous people.

“I feel a little bit out of my body right now,” Osaka said on Sunday, minutes after winning her first round match in the Olympic tennis competition, a rare 87 minutes of normalcy.

Osaka, 23, has described herself as shy and still adjusting to life in the spotlight and being the face of her sport and so much more. She represents a new generation in Japan trying to embrace multiculturalism in a way its predecessors have not.

The ultimate Olympic moment seemed fitting for Osaka, a child of a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, who was born in Japan but largely raised in the United States. She chose the country of her birth as her lone nationality in 2019.

Players speak of tennis as both a sport and a means of self-expression, and Osaka has climbed the ranks with a style of reflecting the way she seems to live. Her presence quietly fills the court, and she dominates with bursts of power — sudden, unreturnable forehands from six feet behind the baseline, jumping backhands, aces boomed down the T.

Waiting to return her opponent’s serve, she often makes a fist with her left hand and whacks herself on the thigh two or three times to fire herself up.

Those she has vanquished include Serena Williams in an upset at the U.S. Open final in 2018 that in retrospect was a torch-passing moment. Then Osaka picked up another Grand Slam title a few months later at the 2019 Australian Open.

And yet, as recently as 13 months ago, despite the growing fame that had already made her the world’s highest-paid female athlete, Osaka could still slip into a march in Minneapolis largely unnoticed with thousands of others to protest police violence against Black people.

Her activism intensified after Jacob Blake was shot in the back after exchanging words with the police in Kenosha, Wis.

Osaka announced she would not play the semifinal of the Western & Southern Open, affirming she was a Black woman first, before a tennis player. She fully expected to be defaulted.

Within hours, the United States Tennis Association announced that it would halt play for a day, a remarkable move she had inspired.

At the U.S. Open the next week, she showed up with seven masks, each with the name of a victim of police violence. She said she would wear one before each match. She had seven, because she intended to play in the final. She did, and she won it.

This year has already produced another Grand Slam title, but also the crisis of the French Open.

After the tumult, Osaka said little. .

She gave no interviews, and yet hardly lacked for a media presence. She wrote an essay on mental health for Time, and appeared on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

And then, suddenly, Friday night, there she was in the flesh, her hair styled in scores of red-tinted braids, standing under the cauldron, waiting to take the torch and light the flame, something no tennis player has ever done. Osaka said she was asked in March to light the flame and felt honored and happy to be the one.

“She deserved to be there,” said Leylah Fernandez, the rising Canadian. Sunday afternoon, it was back to her day job. She sauntered onto the court in the intense, midday heat wearing big white headphones and a maroon outfit that matched her braids and overpowered Saisai Zheng of China, 6-1, 6-3.

That was far better than Ashleigh Barty, the world No. 1 who, fresh off her first Wimbledon title, lost to Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain, 6-4, 6-3.

When Osaka’s match was over, she even took questions from the news media and she seemed happy to be doing it again.

“It doesn’t feel weird to me,” she said.

There are more than 11,000 athletes at these Olympics, but after three days these seem like the Osaka Games.

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