Naomi Osaka lights cauldron to open 2020 Tokyo Olympics

By Liz Roscher, Fri, July 23, 2021

Olympics in Tokyo
Photo taken July 23, 2021, shows the National Stadium, just ahead of the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. (Kyodo)==Kyodo

Naomi Osaka, four-time Grand Slam tennis champion, had the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron at the Opening Ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on Friday.

The torch always finishes its long journey in the Opening Ceremony venue, being carried around the stadium by notable athletes or other figures from the host country. Those athletes are a closely guarded secret until the ceremony actually happens, so Osaka’s presence was a huge surprise.

There might not have been anyone better to have the great honor of lighting the cauldron. Osaka is one of tennis’ brightest stars, and at just 23 years old, she’s still on the rise. Born in Japan and raised in the United States, Osaka is playing tennis for Japan in the Olympics, and she’s a gold medal favorite.

Olympics in Japan
Best of Tokyo Opening Ceremony slideshow embed

Who else carried the torch?

The torch entered the stadium being carried by Olympic champions Nomura Tadahiro (judo) and Yoshida Saori (wrestling). From there, it was time for Japan’s long history and love of baseball to take center stage. Hideki Matsui, former New York Yankees player who spent nine years playing for the Yomiuri Giants before moving playing in the U.S., accompanied Japanese legends Shigeo Nagashima and Oh Sadaharu, who holds the world lifetime home run record with 868 over his 21-year career.

The baseball players handed the torch off to two first responders, who gave it to Tsuchida Wakako, a women’s wheelchair marathoner who was the first Japanese athlete to win medals at the Summer and Winter Paralympics.

A group of middle school athletes then carried the torch to Osaka, who lit the cauldron that will keep burning until the closing ceremony in two weeks.

Background of Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka was born on October 16, 1997, in Chūō-ku, Osaka in Japan to Tamaki Osaka and Leonard François. Her mother is from Hokkaido, Japan, and her father is from Jacmel, Haiti. She has an older sister named Mari who is a former professional tennis player. The two girls were given their mother’s family name for practical reasons when the family lived in Japan. Osaka’s parents met when her father was visiting Hokkaido while he was a college student in New York.

Osaka has been ranked No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and is the first Asian player to hold the top ranking in singles. She is a four-time Grand Slam singles champion, and is the reigning champion at the US Open and the Australian Open. Her seven titles on the WTA Tour also include two at the Premier Mandatory level. At the 2018 US Open and the 2019 Australian Open, Osaka won her first two Grand Slam singles titles in back-to-back Grand Slam tournaments, and is the first player to achieve this feat since Jennifer Capriati in 2001. She also became the first woman to win successive Grand Slam singles titles since Serena Williams in 2015.

Osaka has lived and trained in the United States since age three. She came to prominence at age 16 when she defeated former US Open champion Samantha Stosur in her WTA Tour debut at the 2014 Stanford Classic. Two years later, she reached her first WTA final at the 2016 Pan Pacific Open in Japan to enter the top 50 of the WTA rankings. Osaka made her breakthrough into the upper echelon of women’s tennis in 2018 when she won her first WTA title at the Indian Wells Open. Later in the year, she defeated 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams in the final of the US Open to become the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam singles title. Since 2018, she has won a Grand Slam singles title in four consecutive years.

Osaka’s family moved from Japan to Valley Stream, New York on Long Island to live with her father’s parents. Her father was inspired to teach his daughters how to play tennis by watching the Williams sisters compete at the 1999 French Open. Having little experience as a tennis player himself, he sought to emulate how Richard Williams trained his daughters to become two of the best players in the world, despite having never played the sport. François remarked that “the blueprint was already there. I just had to follow it,” with regard to the detailed plan Richard had developed for his daughters. He began coaching Naomi and Mari once they settled in the United States. In 2006, her family moved to Florida when she was eight or nine years old so that they would have better opportunities to train. She practiced on the Pembroke Pines public courts. When she was 15 years old, she began working with Patrick Tauma at the ISP Academy. In 2014, she moved to the Harold Solomon Tennis Academy. She later trained at the ProWorld Tennis Academy.

Although Osaka was raised in the United States, her parents decided that their daughters would represent Japan. They said, “We made the decision that Naomi would represent Japan at an early age. She was born in Osaka and was brought up in a household of Japanese and Haitian culture. Quite simply, Naomi and her sister Mari have always felt Japanese so that was our only rationale. It was never a financially motivated decision nor were we ever swayed either way by any national federation.” This decision may have also been motivated by a lack of interest from the United States Tennis Association (USTA) when she was still a young player. The USTA later offered her the opportunity to train at their national training center in Boca Raton when she was 16 years old, but she declined.

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