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Djokovic launches Olympic quest on first day of medal action in Tokyo

(AFP)

Novak Djokovic launches his quest for Olympic tennis glory on day one of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games on Saturday as Tour de France champion Tadej Pogacar goes for one of 11 gold medals on offer.

Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron in Friday’s opening ceremony at an eerily empty stadium after the coronavirus forced organisers to ban spectators at all but a handful of venues.

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Games chiefs will be desperate to shift the focus to the sporting action from the pandemic, which forced a one-year postponement and has dominated the build-up to the start of the event.

“Today is a moment of hope,” Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said at the low-key opening ceremony, which unfolded in front of fewer than 1,000 VIPs and several thousand athletes.

“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.”

But the virus cast a fresh shadow when German Olympic chiefs announced cyclist Simon Geschke had tested positive for coronavirus, forcing him out of the men’s road race.

And Covid-19 claimed the opening game of the Olympic beach volleyball tournament, with Czech pair Marketa Nausch Slukova and Barbora Hermannova forced to withdraw. 

More than 20 sports from archery to weightlifting start on Saturday.

– Golden Grand Slam –

Djokovic had cast doubt over whether he would participate because of the strict virus protocols and lack of crowds, but the possibility of the Golden Slam — winning all four majors and the Olympics in the same year — proved impossible to resist.

“Without the key element of any sports events, the crowds, the fans, that energy, it’s different, but it is still the Olympic Games,” said the world number one.

Djokovic will face Bolivia’s Hugo Dellien in the opening round of a tournament missing half the men’s top 10 players, including  2008 Olympic champion Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer.

The favourite and 2008 bronze medallist is hoping to emulate Steffi Graf’s 1988 feat of winning the Golden Slam after already snapping up the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon this year.

Women’s world number one Ashleigh Barty will make her Olympic debut for Australia alongside friend and compatriot Storm Sanders in the doubles.

Osaka, who plays in the singles on Sunday, has not played since her shock French Open pull-out over mental health concerns in late May but the 23-year-old said she was “excited to play” after taking time out.

– Pogacar eyes gold  –

The first gold medal in Tokyo will come in the women’s 10-metre air rifle, which started before the road race cyclists set off from Musashinonomori Park.

The demanding 234-kilometre (145-mile) route climaxes at the Fuji International Speedway racing circuit, with riders facing five climbs around Mount Fuji, the highest point in Japan at an altitude of 3,776 metres (12,388 feet).

Slovenia’s Pogacar, who this month won his second successive Tour de France, headlines a star-studded peloton that includes 2016 champion Greg Van Avermaet and his Belgian team-mates Remco Evenepoel and Wout van Aert.

Medals are also up for grabs in archery, fencing, judo, taekwondo and weightlifting.

Swimming begins with heats in the men’s 400m individual medley, where Japan’s Daiya Seto is the favourite, before Sweden’s reigning champion Sarah Sjostrom, still recovering from a fractured right elbow, lines up in the women’s 100m butterfly.

Britain’s Olympic and world champion Adam Peaty is the one to watch in the men’s 100m breaststroke, while Hungarian great Katinka Hosszu starts her fifth Games in the women’s 400m medley.

The US women’s football team will look to bounce back from a humbling 3-0 loss to Sweden when they take on New Zealand in the second round of group games.

Three-on-three basketball, played with a single hoop, makes its debut at the Olympics, which features four new sports — karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing.

John WEAVER

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