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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: The young tennis star's first Olympic experience

Naomi Osaka is seen serving during a second-round match of the women's tennis singles competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at Ariake Tennis Park on July 26, 2021. (Mainichi/Rei Kubo)

Yutaka Nakamura, 49, is a personal trainer to 23-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka. In this edition of his regular series, Nakamura reflects on Osaka's experience at the Tokyo Games, including her early elimination which prevented her from earning an Olympic medal and her achievement of lighting the Olympic cauldron as the last torch relay runner at the games' opening ceremony.

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    Naomi lost during her third-round match of the Tokyo Olympics, but I think that competing on the Olympics stage for the first time became a significant experience for her.

    Naomi loves Japan, and her home country being the games' host is something special for her. Dying her hair red and white -- the colors of the Japanese flag -- shortly before her departure for Japan also showed her attachment to the Tokyo Games. As was the case with her role as the final torch relay runner. I think that Naomi was chosen for this role as many people have appreciated her words and thoughts she has expressed, and I've also sensed her wish to share them with others. We discussed her big achievement, talking of her gratitude toward the Olympics as well as how she took on such a large role.

    Although I was born and raised in Japan, I also have experience living abroad for many years, so I was super happy to be able to come home in order to participate in the games as Naomi's trainer. Watching her, I could tell that she was looking forward to the Olympics, and she also apparently sensed that I was looking forward to them too. Before boarding our flight to leave for the games, and on other occasions, Naomi told me that I looked excited, and I responded by showing her a fist pump.

    As the current Tokyo Olympics has restrictions in place due to the coronavirus, it is unfortunate that we are unable to go to other competition venues or play in front of spectators, but I've also felt an Olympic-like atmosphere surrounding the games. There are Olympic logos at venues, and delegates around the world wear uniforms bearing their countries' flags. Volunteers who help run the games are also present, and they wave to us with smiles on their faces. When we moved through the competition venue at Ariake Tennis Park in Tokyo, using a golf cart, upon boarding the vehicle, the driver told Naomi to do her best. A very warm and nice atmosphere enveloped the area. There were various people of both sexes, from students to elderly people, and Naomi also seemed happy to be given encouraging words. She thanked each person in Japanese.

    Trainer Yutaka Nakamura, second from right, is seen watching tennis player Naomi Osaka, who appeared in a third-round match of the women's tennis singles competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, at Ariake Tennis Park on July 27, 2021. Pictured third from right is Osaka's trainer Natsuko Mogi, while her coach Wim Fissette is pictured fourth from right. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

    Though I couldn't watch other events at the actual venues, I love all kinds of sports, and kept the TV on to view the Olympics throughout my free time. As is the case with typical matches, "Team Naomi" members, including coach Wim Fissette and trainer Natsuko Mogi, who specializes in body care, also accompanied us to Tokyo, and I took the lead to bring up the topic of the Olympics. As Naomi likes basketball, we talked about watching basketball player Rui Hachimura on TV, as well as Japan's gold medals, such as "The victories of the Abe siblings in judo was amazing."

    Naomi's training is usually based in Los Angeles, so the team also talked about how Yuto Horigome who took the gold in men's street skateboarding, also lives there. Although Naomi is a tennis player, I think at times she is influenced by other sports. She was curious about how athletes in other sports, including softball, soccer, table tennis, swimming and badminton, were doing in the games, and I was also watching them by taking note of how athletes were acting after they won or lost, and other factors.

    Naomi was not able to reach her goal of winning a gold medal this time, but I think that she did well in her first and second matches. Although anyone can get tense and nervous during their first match, she concentrated intensely from her first match, and showed agility and a spirit of not giving up in response to unexpected drop shots near the net. It was the first time in two years that she played in Japan, and she wanted to do her best in the Olympics held in her home country. Amid a tense atmosphere, her opponent took the lead during the match she lost, and this must have made it hard for her to gather herself together again.

    Naomi's Tokyo Games has come to an end, but the 23-year-old still has plenty of room for growth. If she engages in more training, she has the ability to bring out the best of her skills not only on hard courts, which she excels at, but also on clay and grass courts. The U.S. Open -- one of the four Grand Slam tournaments -- will begin at the end of August, so we'd like to work hard and aim for her third victory in that event.

    (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.

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