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Japanese trainer shares how tennis star Naomi Osaka stayed on winning track amid pandemic

Naomi Osaka, center, celebrates her win with her team after defeating Jennifer Brady during the Australian Open Women's Singles final in Melbourne Park on Feb. 20, 2021. Yutaka Nakamura is second from right. (Tennis Australia/Fiona Hamilton)

TOKYO -- With her win in the Australian Open women's singles final, 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka has claimed her fourth Grand Slam. In an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun, her 48-year-old trainer, Yutaka Nakamura, reflected on her path to victory amid life in quarantine and a lockdown in Australia over the coronavirus pandemic. Below are excerpts from Nakamura's comments.

    *****

    The Australian Open was postponed by three weeks due to the coronavirus. Though Naomi participated in the preliminaries at the beginning of February, she hadn't played in an actual match since winning the U.S. Open in September 2020. For us, it was great news to hear that the Australian Open would be held. We wanted Naomi to show what she was capable of, and we are happy to have achieved a good result.

    Immediately after she won and came up to us, I told her, "We did it!" We entered Australia amid the coronavirus pandemic, and we had been there for over five weeks. Naomi won against Serena Williams in the semifinals. Various thoughts rushed through my head, and I was lost for words.

    Everyone on the team gathered in a hallway at the stadium and celebrated, while I sprayed a bottle of champagne. I love doing stuff like that, and also did the same thing after returning to the waiting room when Naomi won the U.S. Open, but I wanted to do it right at that moment in Naomi's latest victory.

    Since we have to move around immediately after the end of the championships, there's not much time to celebrate her victory. On that day, we returned to our hotel around 2 a.m. and had the usual photo shoot and press conference the day after. Naomi would have been tired too, but I think she enjoys being able to deliver her own message to the audience after winning. She has an excellent ability to think and make decisions on her own.

    In her victory speech, Naomi said, "I'd like to thank my team. I've been with them too long. A month and some change. We've been through quarantine together, and for me, they're like my family. They're the ones with me, through my training, through my matches, through my nervous talks before my matches."

    Previously, she may have kept some of those emotions to herself, but now she can tell us that she is nervous. The team has an atmosphere where she can share those feelings. On the night before her match, everyone on the team had seafood pasta and fish together.

    I feel like Naomi's performance as a tennis player has gained depth. Even though she wasn't in perfect condition, she was strong enough to make up for that in other ways. The first shot is important, but even when her first serve percentage was low, she had good returns and good movement on the court. The surfaces of Australian Open courts are fast and slippery, so players have to shift their center of gravity downward to get into the perfect position. Naomi was able to change directions while doing so, and moved rhythmically while keeping the lower half of her body and the axes of her body stable.

    Naomi Osaka's trainer Yutaka Nakamura, left, celebrates her win after defeating Jennifer Brady during the Australian Open Women's Singles final in Melbourne Park on Feb. 20, 2021. (Tennis Australia/Michael Dodge)

    Mistakes can be avoided with physical training, enabling players to move their body and hit the ball in the optimal position without too much effort. At the base of the pyramid comes physical strength, and if we can widen and thicken the base, the tip of the pyramid, or the technique, can reach a higher level. It is important for tennis players to be able move their body to the best of their ability, and remain agile enough to stop and change directions. This time, Naomi used a ladder and other tools to train her footwork by repeating small steps that made her shoes squeak at every warm-up.

    Since we experienced a sudden lockdown and lived in quarantine due to the effects of the coronavirus, we had to respond flexibly to changes. By responding to various situations, I believe Naomi and the rest of us were able to grow.

    Something that differed greatly in the Australian Open compared to the U.S. Open, which was held without spectators, was that there was a two-week quarantine period. Australia basically bans foreigners from entering the country now, but we got an entry permit in mid-January, and chartered a flight from Los Angeles. It doesn't matter whether the person is a seeded player or low in the rankings, everyone coming in including coaches and others involved spent time in quarantine.

    During that period, we were allowed to go outside for up to five hours a day to practice. Apart from that time, we were always in the hotel, and didn't get to meet any of the other players in the two weeks. We spent our time in the environment that was provided to us, and passed day after day in the way we were instructed to. Though we could email or call others, social media was our only source of information to see how other players were doing.

    But even during regular tours, we don't spend much time going out. I think many players felt stressed out about the restriction of not being able to go out. Since we have never had this kind of experience, it was mentally exhausting, and we had to think flexibly, which was challenging.

    Every day during that period, we had to get tested for the coronavirus, but we were able to return to a normal life after two weeks. Melbourne is controlling infections quite well. Stores were operating like usual, and people running outside did not need to wear masks. Compared to America, where we have tons of infections, I think Melbourne is gradually returning to normal.

    During the U.S. Open, players and related parties were isolated from all outside contact, had to take a polymerase chain reaction test every four days, and had to keep a distance from other players even in the waiting room -- it was a "bubble in a bubble" sort of situation.

    In contrast, during the Australian Open, players and others could go about almost freely after the two-week quarantine period. We returned to our normal lives while taking coronavirus measures. We were only required to fill in a health check form on fevers and other symptoms via our smartphones to the organizer every day.

    Though there was a five-day lockdown starting on Feb. 13 after a cluster of infections broke out in Melbourne, I felt that the government and the contest's organizer, Tennis Australia, were quick in their decision-making and their process was transparent. The citizens also seemed to accept their decision. Matches were held without spectators during the lockdown.

    Under the lockdown in Australia, everyone spent time in the hotel after returning from the venue. I always had the TV on to watch the Australian Open. I know trainers have to observe the matches, but it's hard to continue watching in a closed environment. I can watch men's tennis in a relaxed manner because it's irrelevant to my job, but I needed to watch the news or think about something else to refresh my mind. In that kind of limited environment, Naomi spent her time well by turning her interest to anime and fashion.

    It is very meaningful for us to be able to participate in the Grand Slam amid restrictions over the coronavirus, and the organizers did everything they could. That's why even though it was hard to manage our health under quarantine, we believed that we could get through. The latest Australian Open accepted about 1,200 people including trainers who came from dozens of countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere. Though the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are several times the size, I think the success of the Australian Open gives us hope for the Tokyo Games.

    (Japanese original by Hiromi Nagano, City News Department)

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