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 United States 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.