Naomi Osaka took centre stage as she lit the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo after a spectacular show at the national stadium.
It was amazing. I wasn’t expecting that. I know that they changed the schedule yesterday, but it was a special moment for me. I know that right now I really feel the Olympic vibe. My Dad’s told me a lot about the Olympics. I couldn’t actually imagine it properly, but for sure it’s a special event. It’s different than any other tournament. I’m trying to give myself the opportunity to get used to it and focus on playing. Iga Świątek
“Undoubtedly the greatest athletic achievement and honour I will ever have in my life,” she said on Twitter. “I have no words to describe the feelings I have right now but I do know I am currently filled with gratefulness and thankfulness. love you guys thank you.”
The Japanese Grand Slam winner carried the Olympic torch up the steps of the cauldron sat atop a peak inspired by Mount Fiji, with a sphere shaped like a flower opening its petals.
Perhaps as expected, Friday’s opening ceremony was a restrained affair, unlike the carnival of Rio 2016 or the skydiving of London 2012, but more a reflection that the Games are taking place in a world still facing its toughest challenge.
“Today is a moment of hope,” said Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). “Yes, it is very different from what all of us had imagined, but let us cherish this moment because finally we are all here together.”
These Games are different, dampened by masks, positive tests and the absence of fans, but it is still the Olympics and the greatest show on Earth with a worldwide audience in the billions, still faster, higher, stronger and now together.
Osaka’s honour as the final torchbearer got the Games under way.
At 23 she is making her Olympic debut and is the centrepiece of Tokyo 2020, with her face adorning posters and billboards across the city.
“If you don’t fit the expectation, change it” Naomi Osaka #StrongerTogether tweets, encouraging girls all over the world to embrace their individuality.
The lighting of the cauldron marked the final step of a long journey for the Olympic Torch through Japan, at the end of a relay which began on 25 March 2021.
The torch is designed in the shape of a cherry blossom, a symbol close to the hearts of the Japanese people.
Osaka was due to play the opening Olympic match at Ariake Tennis Centre against China’s Zheng Saisai but this was removed from the schedule for Saturday less than 24 hours before it was due to be played prompting speculation.
The four-time Grand Slam champion is making a return to action after taking an eight-week break for mental health reasons, withdrawing from the French Open and missing Wimbledon altogether.
Organisers said the change had been made at the request of Tokyo 2020, prompting speculation Osaka was to be involved in the Opening Ceremony on Friday evening.
The honour of playing the first match fell to 6th seed Iga Świątek, who defeated Germany’s Mona Barthel, 6-2 6-2 with a champion’s poise to reach the second round on her Games debut.
Świątek, who was initially expecting to open Court 1, was delighted to produce a performance worthy of the stage.
“It was amazing,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I know that they changed the schedule yesterday, but it was a special moment for me. I know that right now I really feel the Olympic vibe.”
Świątek may be making her Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, but she has plenty of history in the Games, having secured a doubles gold medal alongside Kaja Juvan at the Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018 while her father, Tomasz, was an Olympian, competing in the men’s quadruple sculls event at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
“My Dad’s told me a lot about the Olympics,” said Świątek. “I couldn’t actually imagine it properly, but for sure it’s a special event.
“It’s different than any other tournament. I’m trying to give myself the opportunity to get used to it and focus on playing.”
Świątek proved ruthless in the face of the oppressive humidity on Saturday. She raced into a 5-0 lead in 26 minutes, though her German opponent managed to put more pressure on her serve than the scoreline suggests.
A lapse in concentration produced a double-fault when serving for the opening set, which gave Barthel a break and a glimmer of hope of finding a foothold in the match, but the Pole held her nerve and got off court, and out of the heat, after just 67 minutes.
“It is humid,” admitted last year’s French Open champion. “I’m not used to it. My perfect weather is in Great Britain or maybe [the weather] at 2020 Roland Garros!
“It’s hard to get used to it, but we gave myself time, we came to Takasaki [about 100km north of Tokyo] before going to the Olympic village to get used to the jetlag, humidity, and right now it’s much, much easier [than when I arrived].
“But still, when the stress comes and all the different factors that you have on that match, it’s different. I’m happy I’m in the second round and I can just get the experience.”
Świątek, who will face either Paula Badosa or Kristina Mladenovic in round two, was quick to acknowledge Osaka’s honour on Friday night representing both Japan and tennis.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “I think she deserves it with all the great results that she had. She’s dealing with a lot of stuff, so it’s good that she had the honour and opportunity to do that.
“It’s a pretty special moment so I hope she’s going to remember that.”
Britain’s Heather Watson exited in the first round of the women’s singles, beaten by German Anna-Lena Friedsam, 7-6(5) 6-3, in an hour 49 minutes.
“It definitely wasn’t my best tennis but I gave it my best with what I had,” said Watson. “It just wasn’t enough.
“There were too many unforced errors that came and went in waves. I am just very disappointed with the outcome.
“I did everything I could to prepare right and I literally could not have done any more. I felt really good going out there.”
In round 2, Friedsam will play Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 13th seed, who dispatched Italy’s Sara Errani, 6-0 6-1.
Other winners on Friday included Canada’s Leylah Annie Fernandez, a 6-3 3-6 6-0 winner over Dayana Yastremska from the Ukraine; 15th-seeded Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan, who defeated Australian Olympic veteran Sam Stosur, 6-4 6-2; Maria Sakkari, Greece’s 14th seed, who took out Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, 7-5 6-2; and Victorija Golubic from Switzerland, a 6-4 6-1 winner against Colombia’s Maria Camila Osorio Serrano.