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Japanese trainer who helped Sharapova conquer French Open reflects on her retirement

Maria Sharapova and Yutaka Nakamura are seen running together in this photo provided by Yutaka Nakamura.
Maria Sharapova and Yutaka Nakamura are seen training together in Los Angeles, U.S. (Mainichi/Hiromi Nagano)

Maria Sharapova, 32, the former women's tennis world No. 1, called time on a professional career that had seen great heights and difficult lows by announcing her retirement on Feb. 26.

Looking back on her journey up to that point, her former trainer Yutaka Nakamura, 47, commented, "I think she gave it everything." On the morning of Feb. 26, immediately after Sharapova had announced her intention to retire, Nakamura gave her a call. He congratulated her on her hard work, and she thanked him for all of his efforts in the up and the down periods.

For seven years starting in 2011, Nakamura worked as Sharapova's personal trainer. She was an athlete who totally devoted herself to her training. While working together, she achieved her goal of winning the French Open grand slam tournament in both 2012 and 2014.

Revisiting those memories had Nakamura all choked up, but the Sharapova on the other end of the phone did not seem sad, and instead gave a sense of being ready for the next challenge.

In January, Sharapova was eliminated from the Australian Open in the first round. Talking about her decision to retire, Nakamura said, "The athlete who won (the tournament) was 21 years old, and players in their teens are performing well, too. With the competition getting harder, maybe she thought now was a good time to bow out.

"She also has an interest in business, and I think after retiring from tennis she will reflect on what she's learned from the sport and become someone who is an influence to those around her."

In 2004, Sharapova won the Wimbledon Ladies' Singles, her first grand slam tournament victory at age 17. The following year she became world No. 1, but she underwent surgery on her shoulder in 2008 and her ranking fell.

Maria Sharapova and Yutaka Nakamura are seen at The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club where the Wimbledon Championships are held, in this photo provided by Yutaka Nakamura.

Nakamura was hired to help recover her form. Sharapova stands at 1.88 meters tall, and often slipped and lost her balance on clay courts, which made the French Open particularly difficult for her. Through repeated training drills designed to lower her center of gravity, she was able to finally win Roland Garros in 2012, and in doing so notched victories at all four grand slams, otherwise known as a career grand slam.

The enduring impression Nakamura has of Sharapova is her drive, even when she was at the pinnacle of her sport, to continually improve. "Even when she'd just won, she'd be talking about what training we were going to do the next day," he said.

Though a pro, there must have been times when she didn't want to train, Nakamura says. But she reportedly wouldn't skip on it, and would attend as scheduled every time, in an atmosphere that didn't tolerate half measures. "She was always thinking about where she could improve. She liked to try new things, even during training."

The team supporting Sharapova was diverse and had a strong sense of unity. Her trainer, Nakamura, is from Japan, her coach was from the Netherlands, her physical therapist was French, her hitting partner was German, and her manager was from the U.S. Even in 2016 when she was banned from professional tennis for a year and three months after breaking doping rules, the team's trust in her remained unshaken, and she continued to work tirelessly with the whole team to return to the game.

Maria Sharapova and Yutaka Nakamura are seen training in Florida, U.S., in this image provided by Yutaka Nakamura.

Sharapova attracted attention as a great tennis player. She used that presence, Nakamura said, to help improve the standing of female athletes. He said that as a star tennis player she attracted the kind of attention that would get her onto the open practice courts and win her center court billing for matches with large audiences, and that this was connected to fairer treatment between male and female players.

In the autumn of 2018, Nakamura took up a position as the Head of Tennis & Strength Conditioning at IMG Academy in Florida, which cultivated the talents of professionals including Sharapova and Kei Nishikori.

"Once again, I've noticed her greatness, her feeling that she has to keep going without giving in. Perhaps there will be no athlete greater than her. But I want to continue to give back the things I learned with her to the younger generation," he said.

(Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, City News Department)

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