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Olympics: Fairytale debut gold step too far for Tokyo Games icon Osaka

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, reacts during a third round women's tennis match against Marketa Vondrousova, of the Czech Republic, at the Summer Olympics, on July 27, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- The upside of the painful setback Naomi Osaka suffered Tuesday when she was knocked out of the Tokyo Games, an Olympics to which she will be forever associated due to her prominent opening ceremony role, is that it leaves the young achiever something to chase.

    In being chosen to light the Olympic cauldron on home soil, her status among the world's most recognizable and influential sporting faces was confirmed in the clearest of manners.

    Whether her high-profile torch-carrying role played any part in her on-court flame out is impossible to know, but to anyone watching these unprecedented games, it was clear Osaka was not quite ready for the moment.

    Osaka's third grand slam title came at the 2020 U.S. Open when her show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, by wearing masks bearing the names of victims ahead of each round, seemed to inspire rather than impinge on her performance on the court.

    Following her press boycott, withdrawal and subsequent revelation of her struggles with anxiety at this year's French Open, Osaka seemed to be dealing with more than her fair share of personal issues. Carrying the Olympic flame to the cauldron, and the hopes of the host nation at her debut games, may have been a step too far.

    "Of course I always play for Japan, but I definitely feel there was a lot of pressure for me this time around. I think it's maybe because I haven't played in the Olympics before," she said after her third-round defeat to Czech Marketa Vondrousova.

    "For the first (Olympics) to be here was a bit much. But I think I'm glad with how I've played, with just taking that break that I had."

    She played down talk of the impact her time away had, citing previous breaks and the good performances that followed. But she also admitted her "expectations were a lot higher than what my result was."

    "I think my attitude wasn't that great because I didn't really know how to cope with that pressure, so that's the best that I could have done in that situation," she said.

    The 23-year-old has been at the center of attention ever since beating her childhood hero Serena Williams at the U.S. Open final in September 2018, the match most remembered for the 23-time grand slam winner Williams' on-court meltdown over an umpiring decision and the tearful post-match speech Osaka made amid the storm.

    After ascending to the top of her sport at the age of 20, Osaka has managed to stay there while making her voice heard on issues many athletes consider too controversial to broach.

    Winning a fairytale home Olympic gold medal would have further cemented her place as more than just a generational tennis talent, but she hinted she was aware it was going to be a challenge.

    "The scale of everything is a bit hard because of the break that I took, so I am glad I didn't lose in the first round at least," she said in her typically straightforward manner.

    Her bid failed, leaving the Olympic gold on her list of titles to chase alongside the French Open and Wimbledon crowns. Only time will tell what the defeat means to her, and how she will respond.

    "For me, I'm really glad to have played here. I'm sad that I lost of course but, all in all, I'm really happy with my first Olympic games," she said, her tone calm and clear despite the tears running down her face.

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