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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: Voices of concern for Chinese star's safety

This photo from the WTA's official Twitter account shows the spreading hashtag "WhereIsPengShuai," over concerns about the safety of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai.

"Where is Peng Shuai?" A Chinese female tennis player has accused a former government official of forcing her to have sexual relations with him, and there is widespread concern for her safety. The head of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) headquartered in Florida has indicated that they are prepared to withdraw from the Chinese market.

    Yutaka Nakamura, 49, a personal trainer to 24-year-old tennis star Naomi Osaka, was surprised by the WTA's quick reaction, saying that he was worried if it was going too far. That's because China's influence on women's tennis is increasing. In this edition of his regular series, Nakamura explains how the tennis world perceives this issue.

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    The world was shocked by 35-year-old Peng Shuai's confession on social media that she was forced to have sexual relations with a former senior official of the Chinese Communist Party, after which she disappeared from the public eye. The player's post was deleted after about 30 minutes. Naomi was also worried and tweeted about it.

    Peng won the doubles titles at the Wimbledon Championships and the French Open. She plays both singles and doubles and has made great contributions to the tennis tour so far.

    In addition to Naomi, top men's player Novak Djokovic and others immediately raised their voices. Social media posts with the hashtag "WhereIsPengShuai" spread among the players.

    This photo shows Yutaka Nakamura, a personal trainer to tennis star Naomi Osaka. (Photo courtesy of Yutaka Nakamura)

    I was a little surprised by the WTA's reaction. WTA CEO Steve Simon issued a statement and also appeared on U.S. network CNN, where he went as far as to say that the WTA would pull out of the Chinese market unless her safety was confirmed and the investigation was conducted properly. I was a little worried if he had gone too far. Because, especially in women's tennis, there are a lot of tournaments held in China. The WTA signed a 10-year contract that the final tour event for the top eight singles and doubles players will be held in Shenzhen, China, starting in 2019. China is also very active in hosting tournaments. (In pre-COVID 2019, nine of the 59 WTA tour events were held in China.)

    When I was Maria Sharapova's personal trainer, I went to a tournament in China, and I found the audience there very passionate. They came to cheer her on with big signs, and Sharapova was always being asked for autographs. When considering business, China is a very influential market. However, Simon made it clear that this issue is bigger than business.

    The WTA was originally launched after players lobbied for it in the 1970s. It was founded by American former world No. 1 player Billie Jean King, who called for gender equality. This time, once again, the WTA has shown that its job is to protect its precious players.

    What impressed me even more was that the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), the governing body of the men's tour, also issued a statement, saying, "There is nothing more important to us than the safety of our tennis community." The tennis world is coming together forming a united movement.

    This is a serious human rights issue, but it takes a lot of courage to come forward. Peng must have known the impact of her speaking out.

    It is encouraging to see a growing movement to support her. If you just think and stay silent, nothing will happen. If we don't take action, nothing will change. Rather than treating the sport as a mere tool, everyone involved must support it to ensure that it is managed properly. If the organization does not take appropriate action, the players and fans may turn away.

    Naomi and the rest of "Generation Z" (born in the mid-90s or later), who have been familiar with digital technology from an early age, are quick to react and have the ability to express their feelings.

    (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 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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