For Japan, the Tokyo Olympics have been filled with bumps and potholes and disappointing surprises. A year-long postponement, the barring of international fans – then all fans – and the hemorrhaging of billions of dollars from lost ticket sales and tourism. Even a typhoon blowing just north on Tuesday provided a storm-cloud metaphor they did not need.
Now, the Olympics have lost the athlete who most embodied the hope and joy of the Games. Naomi Osaka, the Japanese tennis superstar who lit the cauldron during the opening ceremony, was eliminated in the third round of the women’s singles tournament.
While the first days of competition have brought some cheer for Japan – it held the top spot in the gold-medal count for a period on Tuesday with wins in skateboarding and surfing – the loss of Osaka dealt a sharp emotional blow and generated discussion over the state of her game.
Osaka, who is ranked No. 2 in the world, lost, 6-1, 6-4, to Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, who is ranked No. 42, in barely more than one hour, a stunning upset that ended her run at the Tokyo Games.
Osaka entered this competition with the highest of expectations, and the rare pressure of having to compete in a Games she opened with the ultimate Olympic honour, a moment that was months in the planning.
She breezed through her first two matches in the first competition she has faced since dropping out of the French Open in June to deal with mental-health issues.
On Tuesday, though, Osaka struggled from the outset, succumbing to both a canny opponent and, she said, the pressure of carrying the weight of the host country, even if the stands were nearly empty.
“I should be used to it by now, but the scale of everything is a bit hard because of the break that I took,” she said of the scrutiny she has been under.
In her brief career, Osaka, 23, has come to represent so much beyond tennis, a sport in which she has already won four majors.
The daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father who was largely raised in the United States, she is a symbol of a more accepting and multicultural Japan, a voice for Black America, women’s equality and athlete power, and she is a budding fashion icon who has appeared on the cover of Vogue and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
But as she knows better than anyone, star power cannot guarantee wins, especially given the state of women’s tennis, a wide-open game lately with rare depth.
Osaka has prevailed twice at both the Australian Open and the U.S. Open, but the Olympic tournament has been a tough nut to crack for even some of the game’s greatest players. It requires winning six matches in just eight days. Roger Federer has never won the gold medal.
With her face gracing billboards everywhere in Tokyo, the Olympic tournament was always going to be as important as any she would play this year, similar to Andy Murray’s gold medal-winning run in London in 2012, when the competition took place at Wimbledon. It grew even larger in March, when she was asked to light the Olympic Stadium flame.
But the potential for a storybook ending fizzled over 68 minutes Tuesday afternoon, when, for long stretches early in the match, Osaka battled to keep the ball in play. She committed 20 errors in the set, 14 of them unforced, and could not rely on her serve to take control of the match the way she usually does.
The loss stunned the handful of people in attendance at Ariake Tennis Park, where a phalanx of Japanese photographers lined the court. Osaka was a favorite to win the tournament on home soil, especially after Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1, was eliminated in the first round, and when other top players lost in Round 2.
Osaka was also seeking a moment of redemption after she dropped out of the French Open over a dispute with tournament officials over whether she should have to attend mandatory news conferences after her matches. After the loss on Tuesday, she made a brief visit to the players’ lounge after the match, then left the grounds, before returning later to speak briefly with the news media.
“I’m glad I did not lose in the first round, at least,” she said.
Because Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron late Friday night in the climax of the opening ceremony, her opening match was moved from Saturday morning to Sunday. As a result, Osaka was playing for a third consecutive day.
She battled to find her rhythm in the second set, which was much tighter than the first, but Vondrousova played with a cool beyond her 22 years, neutralizing Osaka’s power with a series of spins and slices that never allowed Osaka to get comfortable.
“Naomi is the greatest now,” Vondrousova said after one of the biggest wins of her career. “She was also the face of the Olympics, so it was also tough for her to play like this.”
When it was over, in a brief exchange at the net, Osaka told her “good match” and Vondrousova thanked her for the compliment.
“I am really sorry but I am so happy with my game today,” Vondrousova said. “I knew she was going to fight to the end. The end was very tight. It could have gone both ways. It’s so much pressure, I can’t imagine.”
Osaka arrived after having caused upheaval in the tennis world, and intensified discussion about athletes and mental health, when she withdrew from the French Open and skipped Wimbledon as well after her refusal to endure what she called the stress of mandatory news conferences at tennis events, especially at Grand Slam tournaments.
She revealed that she had struggled with depression since 2018 and that she was uncomfortable in the sometimes adversarial public setting of news conferences. She quit the French Open after organizers threatened to disqualify her if she did not meet her media obligations.
During the fracas, Osaka’s sister, Mari, a recently retired professional tennis player, said in a Reddit post that she later deleted that Osaka’s decision to skip news conferences was part of a strategy to avoid discussing her difficulties playing on clay, the surface used at the French Open.
To the public, it was unclear for a while when Osaka would play again, even with the Olympics coming, though Osaka and her team knew she would be in Tokyo, which she announced in mid-June when she also said that she would skip Wimbledon. The Olympic tournament is being played on a hard court, the surface on which Osaka has had the most success.
On Friday night, she joined a short list of illustrious Olympic flame lighters, including Muhammad Ali and Wayne Gretzky. Two days later, she was still absorbing the experience and adjusting to life as the face of Olympic stardom.
“I feel a little bit out of my body right now,” Osaka said on Sunday, minutes after winning her first-round match.
Tuesday afternoon, she was uncertain about her next move. “I’m sort of a person that wings a lot of things. That is either a really good thing or a really bad thing,” she said.
The pro tour shifts in midsummer to North America for the hard court swing, which climaxes with the U.S. Open in late summer, where Osaka is the defending champion.
In her rearview mirror is a unique moment that will never come again.