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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: Strength and modesty in perfect harmony

Naomi Osaka of Japan hits the ball to Cori Gauff of the United States during the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021 in Mason, Ohio. (Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP)

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 having "the strength to take action" while maintaining her "modesty." In the past year, Nakamura has spent time with Osaka, who has attracted a lot of attention off the court, and has felt that she is driven by her heart. On Aug. 30, the U.S. Open will begin, the tournament in which she expressed her protest against racism by wearing various masks last year.

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    After the Tokyo Olympics, Naomi took part in a U.S. Open run-up tournament in Cincinnati, Ohio. The 2020 edition of the event was the first tournament since I joined Osaka as a member of her team in June last year.

    A year ago, there were no spectators due to the spread of the coronavirus, and the venue was in New York. This year fans were allowed to attend, so the atmosphere was different. The tournament was held even though the pandemic is not over. The situation in the U.S. is still serious, with the number of reported infections per day exceeding 200,000 on some days in August.

    The competition in Cincinnati was not held under a "bubble system" where you are cut off from the outside world, but we did not walk outside the venue. We rented a regular house to stay in during the tournament. Compared to a hotel, we spent more time with our team members. We usually had lunch at the venue, and sometimes we had dinner together at the rented house, but other times separately.

    When I am with Naomi, I really feel like she's just an ordinary 23-year-old woman. She has an inner modesty and dignity, but at the same time, her aura conveys the power to change something. She has Japanese blood, Haitian blood, and has experienced the struggles of American society. I think she has the desire to share her thoughts with many people.

    Just before the tournament in Cincinnati, there was an earthquake in her father's homeland of Haiti, and Osaka announced that she would donate all her prize money from the event to the relief efforts. Last year in this meet, she said at one point that she would abstain to protest against racism. She is a very pure-hearted person who approaches things with an honest desire to share what she feels.

    This is the kind of action unique to "Generation Z," which has been familiar with digital technology since childhood. I think people who can make instant decisions and take action will continue to do so into the future.

    She also raised the issue of news conferences from the perspective of mental health at this year's French Open, which started on May 30. At a news conference on Aug. 16, which was her first in about three months, there were reports that she was asked a question about her relationship with the media, which caused her to briefly leave the room.

    I don't believe her speaking out is all one-way, forcing the idea that it must be a certain way. I think she's trying to build a relationship with the media in a way that is different from what we've seen in the past.

    I used to see her just as a tennis player, but now I see her as so much more than that. To grow in business or sports, you first must grow as a human being. I realized this through my experience with her.

    She is truly tremendous in that she is able to take various action beyond just playing sports. Over the past year, she has gained a lot of attention outside of tennis, and has become one of the people speaking for this dynamically changing world.

    The hard-court season, which is her specialty, will continue in the U.S., including the U.S. Open, which she won last year. Her body core has been getting stronger with the training she has been doing. I hope to get her into peak condition for the U.S. Open.

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

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    Reader's question: My inner shoulder hurts when I toss up my serve in tennis, so can you advise me on training to prevent this? (From a man in his 50s)

    Answer: The most important part of the serve is the point at which you hit. If your hitting point is different every time, it will put a lot of strain on your shoulder. If you are feeling pain, it is possible that you are not making the right movements. To stimulate the shoulder, you can use bands, so wrap a rubber band around the umpire's chair or something and do a pulling motion to train it.

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    Profile: Yutaka Nakamura is originally from Tokyo and is currently the strength and conditioning coach for Naomi Osaka, the 2018 and 2020 U.S. Open and the 2019 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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