Naomi Osaka’s presence is being felt at the Toray Pan Pacific Open this week.
The tournament has been played in September since 2007 and usually creates at least a little buzz by attracting a few top players, even in its slot after the U.S. Open.
This year, the buzz sounds a little bit more like a jet engine.
That’s mostly due to Osaka, who became an instant sensation in Japan by defeating Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final on Sept. 9 to become the first Japanese player, female or male, to win a Grand Slam singles title.
A lot of that attention is now being centered around the Pan Pacific Open (PPO), where Osaka is competing for the first time since her U.S. Open triumph, and the excitement level is higher that it’s ever been among fans.
“I think so, yes,” said Noriyo Arima, who is heading up public relations for the tournament. “You could say there are more fans than usual because of (Osaka).
“There are a lot of people who play tennis who come every year, but this year there are a lot of people who don’t really play tennis. Since Osaka’s victory (at the U.S. Open) the phones at our office have been ringing off the hook.
“From a media standpoint, there has been an amazing amount of media who want to come and cover the tournament. So I think it’s had a big impact.”
Tickets for Osaka’s second-round match against Dominika Cibulkova on Wednesday were sold out the day before. When Osaka took the court, it was in front of a packed house at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi.
She gave them what they came to see, a 6-2, 6-1 victory that concluded in just under an hour.
“It was really difficult, she’s such a great player,” Osaka said of Cibulkova during an on-court interview after her victory. “I’m just really grateful that I was able to play in front of you guys.”
She got a big, long round of applause toward the end of the interview, with the interviewer urging the crowd to congratulate Osaka on her U.S. Open victory.
The only downside for the organizers is that the increased attention has come at an inopportune time.
The PPO has been played at Ariake Coliseum since 2008, but was forced to move to a smaller venue this year.
“Ariake Coliseum is being renovated for the Olympics, so it’s closed now,” Arima said. “Normally we have about 10,000 seats, but we only have around 2,500. It’s too bad.
“We really wanted to do it in Ariake but this time we’re in Tachikawa. We became able to hold this event here because we received strong support from Tachihi Holdings.”
In addition to the arena, matches are also being played in a temporary structure made for the tournament.
“The tournament had its own difficulties trying to organize a temporary place to host the event with the refurbishments going on for 2020,” said British player Johanna Konta.
“I think everyone is making the best out of a tricky situation. Most importantly is how hard everyone is trying, that when you come in here, everyone is going to be doing their best to make this a comfortable event, and that’s what it is.”
The relocation to a smaller venue hasn’t affected the field the tournament was able to draw. In addition to Osaka, who is the unquestioned star of the show, the PPO features more than half of the top 10 players in the current world rankings.
“Six players from the top 10 in the WTA world rankings are competing at this year’s tournament,” Arima said. “So it’s a really high-level tournament.
“Normally there are 10 players from the top 20 and five or six from the top 10. You can see the same level of matches that would can see at the third round of a Grand Slam in the first round to this year’s PPO.”