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Japanese tennis star Osaka showed her mental, physical strength in Aus Open win: trainer

Naomi Osaka of Japan returns to Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia during the Miami Open tennis tournament, Friday, March 26, 2021, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

TOKYO -- With her victory in the Australian Open women's singles, 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka has claimed her fourth Grand Slam title. The young player has never lost in a Grand Slam final, and in an interview with the Mainichi Shimbun her 48-year-old trainer, Yutaka Nakamura, said, "Naomi is really strong when she switches on." He reflected on the Australian Open, adding that Osaka had excellent conditioning both physically and mentally. Below are excerpts from Nakamura's comments.

    ***

    Due to the spread of coronavirus infections, the Australian Open was delayed three weeks. A month after her victory, Osaka is competing in the Miami Open in Florida from March 23. As it took a long time before this season started, I feel like we are now galloping full speed ahead.

    I departed Australia two days after the open final, and came back to the United States with Naomi. Busy with the trophy ceremony and media interviews, we barely had time to breathe. She took a two week break and did not swing a racquet but she was scheduled for various appointments such as interviews and photoshoots. Although these activities seemed to help take her mind off her regular routine, she virtually had no complete day off. Naomi dyed her hair sakura pink and posted a picture of her new look on social media (on Feb. 26), and she does those sorts of things as she pleases. While she does physical exercise during her days off, such as muscle training, I left it up to her because it is also important for her to think by herself.

    In the first week back in the U.S., I slept like a hibernating bear. It was mostly due to jetlag, but exhaustion from everything that went on, such as pressure leading up to her victory and the happy feeling that she won, all hit me at once. I think it is natural that we should be more careful about the coronavirus than players are. It was also a little uncomfortable that our movements were restricted due to the pandemic. Even if we could move freely about, I think I would have acted similarly, but there is a huge psychological difference between not going out and not being allowed to go out.

    After her break, Naomi resumed team practice in Los Angeles. She has said she wanted to proceed in a stable manner to achieve a good performance constantly, so her current training methods are an extension of her previous routine, instead of putting an increased load on herself or trying to increase her endurance.

    At the Australian Open, I think she did well with her conditioning to bring herself to the peak of perfection both physically and mentally. Her mental strength is represented by her comment before the final, where she said, "I have this mentality that people don't remember the runners-up." She has been playing tennis with that mindset.

    Naomi shows her real strength during official matches. In especially important clashes, she takes it to another level. Naomi can switch on when she arrives at the location where the matches are held, and she is really strong when she switches on. You can tell that she is telling herself to remain calm by her presence on the court.

    When Naomi is especially focused, her eyes do not shift around. Her awareness about staying calm can be seen when she adjusts the strings of her racket between points or stares at a wall behind the court for a few seconds.

    I believed Naomi could showcase her abilities unless there were physical limitations such as pain. Though her condition was not really the best at the U.S. Open, she strengthened her muscles a lot through training in November and December last year. Naomi gave her routine a boost by training at a gym on days she did not have matches during the Australian Open. It was great for her to play through two weeks without physical pain.

    Strengthening her core was one of the factors that improved her serve returns, which contributed to her Australian Open victory. When Naomi returns serve, she has to hit a ball that is traveling at a staggering 170 to 180 kilometers per hour. To make solid contact with a ball that a player cannot anticipate is coming to their right or left, it is important that the player's body axis does not waver. A strong lower body is also necessary to move to return serve. I think her skills have become more diverse as her physical foundation has become more solid. While her offensive strength tends to attract attention, she also has solid defensive skills.

    Stretch out on the floor and place your lower elbow, shoulder and arm in a straight line. Lower your chin, and be conscious about a straight axis from your head to your heels. (Photo courtesy of Yutaka Nakamura)
    Stay conscious about the axis, and do not drop your hips. Move your fingers, which are pointing at the ceiling, slowly to your side like putting both elbows together. Then return your arms slowly to the starting position. (Photo courtesy of Yutaka Nakamura)

    It is also possible to anticipate things such as which direction a serve will come at. However, she is very simple in a good sense. Neither Wim (Fissette, Osaka's coach who is good at numerical analysis) nor I want her to be inflexible by giving her a lot of information. With too much knowledge, her brain would control her movements instead of her body reacting naturally. While she lends an ear to information, we fear that her instincts would function less if she relied too much on it.

    With her victory at the Australian Open, Naomi has become the only current female player who can possibly achieve the "Golden Slam," which is to win four Grand Slam tournaments and an Olympic gold medal. Since I became her trainer last June, I have never seen her lose an official match, except for when she had to withdraw. Meanwhile, I think the difference in ability among professional female tennis players is so marginal that no one can totally dominate. Naomi still has huge potential for the future. Our team's main goal is to polish her skills rather than comparing her with other players and competing with them.

    While my work involves motivating a player, sometimes I have my hands full encouraging myself. What inspires me in such a situation? Exercise. By working out, fresh blood, oxygen and nutrients are carried throughout the whole body, and elasticity comes from the joints to the muscles. I feel as if my body restarts when I exercise.

    I will introduce the "side plank and arm rotation" exercise. You make the sides of your body the main axis, and turn the upper limbs. It looks easy at first glance, but I think you will feel pressure build up by doing this slowly and being conscious about the axis. This exercise will let you know the difference between the right and the left. I suppose many readers have experienced back pain at least once. Many cases are affected by muscle mass, motion range and accuracy of movement.

    You do not need to move like you're about to fire down an ace like tennis players do. It's OK to do the drill while casually taking a walk outdoors or training your body core indoors.

    I guess readers are having a hard time because of the prolonged pandemic. I also understand you are not motivated to work out when busy. Hang in there while thinking one set of this exercise will lead to tomorrow. And let me hear from you if you have an interest in exercise or any questions!

    1) Stretch out on the floor and place your lower elbow, shoulder and arm in a straight line. Lower your chin, and be conscious about a straight axis from your head to your heels.

    2) Stay aware about the axis, and do not drop your hips. Move your fingers, which are pointing at the ceiling, slowly to your side like putting both elbows together. Then return your arms slowly to the starting position.

    3) One cycle should be between six and 10 seconds. Inhale when lowering your arms, and exhale when raising your arms. Repeat this 10 times and do two or three sets.

    Question: I take a slow walk in my neighborhood, and I feel I'm getting out of shape. Please give me some advice. (A 68-year-old woman)

    Answer: Many people often repeat the same walking routine. While you may feel a sense of achievement after repeating the same thing, it's better to add variety to your routine, such as using stairs and looking at different scenery. Exercise is important, but it works better if you avoid repeating the same thing.

    (Interview by Hiromi Nagano, City News Department)

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