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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: A pandemic-led change in approach

Japan's Naomi Osaka returns the ball to Japan's Misaki Doi during their match at the Mutua Madrid Open tennis tournament in Madrid, Spain, on April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

Yutaka Nakamura, 48, is a personal trainer to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka. In the excerpts from his comments below, Nakamura describes how the drastic changes and tournament postponements wrought on the professional tennis tour by the coronavirus have brought about a change in Osaka's approach to tennis, too.

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    After the hard-court Miami Open in Florida ends, clay-court season begins in April and leads up to the Grand Slam French Open tournament. The Australian Open, the year's first Grand Slam, was delayed by three weeks to February, and the French Open will be postponed by a week to start May 30. The longer prep time is good if you only have to think about how to deal with the clay, but the schedule after has gotten tighter. Naomi will be playing in Europe until Wimbledon, on grass, from June 28 to July 11. Then July 23 is the opening ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics.

    This time last year, the tour was gone; it was like living in the dark with no future in sight. Now we are adapting to some extent, though there are some limitations.

    With tournaments in the pandemic, the way we eat has also changed. For example, the Miami Open had a "bubble system" cutting off all contact with the outside world, so we couldn't go outside anywhere except the venue and the hotel restaurant. It meant we often ate in our hotel rooms using Uber Eats and other services, and because we couldn't share meals together, we ordered and ate Chinese or Japanese food separately.

    When practicing in Los Angeles, Naomi cooks on her own quite a bit. Since she spends more time at home, cooking seems to serve as a diversion for her. In the morning, she makes avocado toast with salmon and so on. She also cooks Japanese food like "chirashi-zushi," or scattered sushi, and sometimes she makes interesting dishes such as fried mashed bananas. Naomi whips up meals efficiently, and plans and does everything by herself, which I think befits an independent tennis player.

    After the Miami Open, team practice was off for almost three weeks. One reason for the relatively long break during the season was that the pandemic changed her approach. It used to be that Naomi played tennis all the time, but after experiencing restrictions on practicing and going out, she began to think that there's more than one way to approach it, that there are different ways than before. I've heard that not only from Naomi, but also from other players and people on the tour.

    Although Naomi's main occupation is tennis, she sometimes gets inspired by things other than the sport, which helps her develop better ways of thinking. Looking at Naomi's activities, such as her interest in and comments on social issues, I feel that she is looking for aspects of herself other than just as a tennis player.

    Recently, hate crimes against Asians have become an issue in the United States. I haven't experienced it directly, but when I see the news, it makes me aware that I am Asian and Japanese, and that I could be a target.

    On social media, Naomi expressed the wish to have others love Asian people in the same way they love anime and sushi. Not only Naomi, but also many other people, including white people, Black people and Asian people, have voiced views that hate against Asians should be stopped. As with the issue of discrimination against Black people, I believe that knowing each other's pain and respecting one another will lead to barriers coming down.

    (Interview by Hiromi Nagano, Tokyo City News Department; Nagano is a former professional tennis player who has competed in all four major tournaments.)

    Profile: Yutaka Nakamura is originally from Tokyo and is currently the strength and conditioning coach for Naomi Osaka, the 2020 U.S. Open and 2021 Australian Open champion. Nakamura has led training programs for many professionals including Maria Sharapova, Kei Nishikori, Tommy Haas, Mary Pierce, and Jennifer Capriati.

    (This is the first of two parts. Watch out for part 2, "Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: The importance of massaging muscles," to be published on May 14.)

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