Michael Pavitt

It is quite hard to imagine what life must have been liked for Naomi Osaka over the past couple of months.

The four-time Grand Slam champion’s withdrawal from the French Open at the end of May provoked a significant discussion, including over the media commitments of players and the support for athletes struggling with their mental health.

A show of support by many, yet a pillorying by a vocal few on social media.

The noise died down during her absence from Wimbledon, but Osaka returned in the glare of one of the biggest spotlights possible on Friday (July 23) when she carried the final torch at the Opening Ceremony and lit the Olympic cauldron.

Osaka was an obvious choice in truth.

It is hard to think of another Japanese athlete with the same international appeal, who has been able to cross the divide between sports fans and non-sports fans.

She might be a self-confessed introvert but was there anyone better to project how Japan wants to present itself to the world through these Games?

Tokyo 2020 spokesperson Masa Tayaka touched upon Osaka’s selection as the final torchbearer, with the Organising Committee expressing a desire to "convey new images of Tokyo 2020 and this country".

Takayuki Hioki, executive producer of Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony, highlighted Osaka’s values as being key.

"The most important thing was to deliver a message of diversity and inclusion," Hioki said.

"In the end we decided on her because she is a great athlete and she has been delivering a variety of messages so we thought she was the best person to be the final torchbearer. It’s more about the absolute values that Naomi Osaka offers, that’s what we focus on.

"Of course, for the Games as a whole and also for Japan, she is a jewel, she is a treasure for us, so that is why we selected her."

Naomi Osaka was an obvious choice to light the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Cauldron ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka was an obvious choice to light the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Cauldron ©Getty Images

On inclusion, organisers clearly wanted to present an image of a multi-racial Japan to the world.

This was reflected in one of Japan’s two flagbearer choices, with basketball player Rui Hachimura selected alongside wrestler Yui Susaki. Hachimura, who plays in the National Basketball Association, was born in Toyama Prefecture to a Japanese mother and a Beninese father.

Osaka’s story is well known as well, with the tennis star born to a Japanese mother and a Haitian father. Her increased public role was highlighted last year when she wore masks bearing the name of a victim of racism and police brutality in the United States on route to winning the title.

Despite living in the United States, her decision to represent Japan has made her one of the country’s biggest ambassadors worldwide.

Novak Djokovic was one of the players reported to have offered support to Osaka over the past couple of months, during her absence from the sport. The Serbian tennis star has seemed to embrace representing his nation and not just himself, which was partly attributed to his tearful reaction to suffering an opening round defeat at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Djokovic was effusive in his praise for Osaka, highlighting how her role in the Opening Ceremony continues to showcase her status as an important representative for tennis.

"It cannot be better for our sport, you are representing yourself, your country but also your sport," Djokovic said.

"In the Olympic Games, you're trying to get the hype and the attention towards our sport as much as you possibly can, so we’re all contributing to that in the Olympic Village. There’s a lot of attention towards the tennis players which is great, from the other athletes which is very nice to see, very nice to experience.

"Naomi Osaka is a home favourite and a lot of eyes are on her. Being at home playing is a lot of pressure, but it’s great for our sport just in general to see that there’s a lot of attention towards it."

Naomi Osaka returned to competition after a two month absence with a comfortable win over China's Zheng Saisai ©Getty Images
Naomi Osaka returned to competition after a two month absence with a comfortable win over China's Zheng Saisai ©Getty Images

Having admitted that she had been selected to light the Olympic Cauldron back in March, it is tempting to wonder whether the uncertainty over the Olympic Games may have been something of a burden.

Osaka could hardly speak out against the Games taking place amid the COVID-19 pandemic, yet the 23-year-old must have been aware of the ongoing public debate in the host nation over whether the Olympics should take place at all.

The quandary was perhaps reflected in her comments back in January, where she admitted that competing in Tokyo would be very special while expressing her concern that she wanted the public to feel safe.

As it is, Osaka has been able to get her wish to compete at these Games but the uncertainty over the pandemic saw her walk to into the Ariake Coliseum to a near empty stadium.

Osaka waved to a handful of volunteers and assembled journalists accredited to attend her tie against China’s Zheng Saisai.

Her low-key arrival into a cavernous 10,000 capacity venue was a moment where the absence of a crowd could be felt the most, with a smattering of applause rather than a potential roar and wave of excitement.

The opening couple of days have seen some venues feel more suited to the lack of fans, with the somewhat enclosed feel helping the likes of fencing and taekwondo, while the presence of fellow swimmers has reportedly helped the atmosphere in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

Organisers have tried their best with those venues. Virtual fans have appeared on big screens during breaks and the "Athlete Moment" concept where athletes can immediately connect with their families directly after winning medals seems quite a nice touch given the circumstances.

The vastness of the Ariake Coliseum does make it harder to replicate.

Osaka is centre stage at her home Games, yet will be one the athletes most impacted by the decision not to allow fans to attend competitions here in Tokyo.

The emptiness of the Ariake Coliseum is a shame when Naomi Osaka is competing at her home Olympics ©Getty Images
The emptiness of the Ariake Coliseum is a shame when Naomi Osaka is competing at her home Olympics ©Getty Images

A comfortable victory over Zheng, combined with Ash Barty’s shock defeat, sees Osaka emerge as the favourite to win the women’s singles title.

"I felt really nervous being in Japan and playing here for the first time in maybe two years, and for it to be my first Olympics," Osaka said after her opening victory.

"I feel like, more than anything, I’m just focused on playing tennis. This, playing the Olympics, has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, so I feel like the break I took was very needed.

"But I feel definitely a little bit refreshed and happy again."

Both Osaka’s happiness and focus on tennis will be a relief to many, who wondered how long an absence she might have from the sport given her status as one of its best ambassadors.

This role within the game was underlined further when a fellow athlete in the draw called her over to ask for a photo, a request politely accepted.

Despite the absence of fans it is clear that a lot of eyes will be on Osaka, with her importance to tennis something that cannot be understated.