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Japanese trainer shares Naomi Osaka's method of coping with coronavirus: interview

Tennis player Naomi Osaka, right, holds the trophy with her trainer Yutaka Nakamura after winning the U.S. Open tennis championships in this photo provided by Nakamura in New York in September, 2020.

TOKYO -- Yutaka Nakamura, who has been the trainer of three-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka since June, is supporting her through workout sessions in Los Angeles and going on tours with the tennis star.

    Nakamura, who has helped the growth of many star athletes including Kei Nishikori and Maria Sharapova as a trainer, spoke to the Mainichi Shimbun about how Naomi spends her time during tours and cutting-edge information useful even to the layperson amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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    I've been working as a trainer for over 20 years, but this is the longest off-season I've ever experienced due to the effects of the novel coronavirus. After winning the U.S. Open tennis championships in September 2020, Naomi took a break for nearly two months and started training again in the beginning of November. Her Belgian coach Wim Fissette and I are staying at the home of Naomi who practices in Los Angeles, so we spend a lot of time together.

    Because she doesn't have any matches, Naomi can spend more time training, and we see it as a positive, since it's a chance to learn more about her physical condition and changes. Not being sure of tournament schedules due to the coronavirus is an anxiety factor, but we believe that it has not had an effect on her emotional ups and downs or motivation.

    Naomi Osaka's trainer Yutaka Nakamura is seen demonstrating during a lecture for tennis coaches at the Tennis Training Center in the city of Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, on Nov. 11, 2015. (Mainichi/Naoaki Hasegawa)

    Every day as I watch Naomi, I am surprised. She has a lot of different traits, like her side as a Japanese and a Black person, as well as an individual raised in the United States. To label and categorize that is so irrelevant. Or more precisely, she can be a lot of things, and I think that's what makes her special.

    Naomi is humble in a good way. I think there are people who love to talk about appearing in a fashion magazine or getting interviewed, but she never boasts -- she's a really humble person.

    Usually the tennis season is long, and tournaments continue after the U.S. Open tennis championships until late November in ordinary years. The Australian Open takes place in the New Year, and off-seasons normally last three to four weeks, but now players can rest for at least two months.

    I think there are many tennis players who aren't practicing in the way they usually do, because of the coronavirus crisis. In a world of "new normals," I think players should use this time to return to a blank slate and think about their true ideals.

    Before the pandemic, players were training amid a tight schedule of tournaments and were always swamped. It takes time to bring out the physical abilities and the talents of a player, and to change them physically. We have to look at things in the long run, and for that I think it is better that players make certain distinctions between work and their private lives.

    Tennis player Naomi Osaka poses for a photo during a press conference held in the city of Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture, on Sept. 13, 2018. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

    There might be some people who are afraid to rest, but Naomi isn't scared in the least. She's better at taking breaks than Maria Sharapova. During breaks, there are days when Naomi exercises, but she basically stays away from tennis. Based on my experience, players can rest if they have the sense of giving it their all when they practice and play. I don't force Naomi to "do this and that" like homework when she's on break. Naomi has created her own rhythm, and I have to give advice when the timing is right.

    There is a way to continue (training) like a marathon, but with Naomi now, she can train pretty hard when she needs to. I've met many players, but physically speaking, I feel Naomi can train the hardest. She can endure quite intense exercises in terms of quality and quantity, and train strictly for two hours up to a certain extent. That's why we have to have her rest when she is on break. It takes some time for players to return to a condition where their body and mind are fresh, so I watch out for the balance between pushing harder and hitting the brakes.

    Naomi trained for three weeks in November 2020 and took a one week break for Thanksgiving, and returned to training in December. Her daily schedule basically includes eating breakfast, warming up for an hour from 9 a.m., playing tennis for an hour and a half and training for two hours. During tournaments, we limit training so that her performance is not affected by exhaustion from training. But since we have time until the next match during this off-season, I can place a load on her that could make her too tired to move the following day.

    She had trained for the U.S. Open in June and July 2020, and since we know the baseline of how much and how often she can endure training for it to be effective, we can work based off of that. In particular, Naomi is training to improve the precision of her footwork and cardiopulmonary function as well as strengthen her muscles including the motion around her shoulder blades. She is training to improve her performance, rather than just maintaining it, so we are working to achieve a goal beyond what she attained in the U.S. Open.

    One morning in mid-November, Naomi told me she had a surprise and asked me if I wanted to know what it was. I wanted to be surprised, so I declined. During practice, Washington Wizards basketball player Rui Hachimura appeared on the tennis court and played with Naomi for about 30 minutes. Hachimura explained that he was also training around Los Angeles while waiting for the National Basketball Association (NBA) season to start on Dec. 22. When I see Naomi interacting with other athletes, I think it reminds her that she returned to the center stage by winning the U.S. Open again, and that gives her confidence.

    Before, Naomi was looking up to athletes and those who she considered heroes, but now she has become one herself. I think she has noticed how important it is for her to speak up after realizing that those people played a big part in her life, and that she exists because there were people in the past who had an impact on her. I don't think she is participating in the BLM movement because she wants empathy. I think she is taking those actions to deliver a message to people facing difficulties and troubled children.

    Naomi herself must have also gone through tough times, and she may feel that tennis saved her. Rather than asserting herself to achieve some kind of change, I think she wants to give a bit of courage to everyone through her performance.

    Naomi has described her biggest goal in 2021 as doing well in the Tokyo Olympic Games. In the remainder of her career, Naomi can likely only compete in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028. She has a limited number of chances, and one of them is in Tokyo. Furthermore, there are four Grand Slam tournaments, and we would like to prepare so that she can perform her best in those events.

    Though some things remain uncertain due to the coronavirus pandemic, we keep in mind to faithfully do what we have to, each day. If it's something we have control over, we do it, if there is a change, we adapt to it. In regards to the Olympics, Naomi is thinking about what she can do in the environment she is now in.

    If asked what the job of a trainer is, I would say we are specialists of the human body. We train an athlete's body so that they can win, but players also need to rest their body and eat properly. A trainer is a person that has the knowledge and experience of training, resting and eating. To know more about the player, we need to move closer to them. That's why if you have the skills to understand an athlete and the power to polish those skills, they can become powerful tools as a trainer.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, City News Department)

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