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Center court with Naomi Osaka's trainer: Osaka's play after the Aus Open vaccine debacle

Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. Djokovic was deported from Australia after losing a bid to stay in the country to defend his Australian Open title despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

Among the Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open is called the "happy slam" and known for its fun atmosphere. But this year's tournament was under scrutiny after Novak Djokovic was deported after losing a legal battle over exemption from coronavirus vaccination rules. How did other tennis players react to the situation? And how did four-time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka, 24, view her defeat in the tournament? Osaka's personal trainer Yutaka Nakamura, 49, reflects on these questions in this edition of his regular series.


    Regarding Djokovic's case, I think there was a lack of communication between tournament organizers and the Australian government. Tennis Australia and other bodies running the event granted him a special medical exemption to play regardless of his vaccination status. But the Australian government argued against this, and Djokovic was refused entry to the country. On top of this, his travel documents had errors. The Australian government also seemed concerned that letting Djokovic in would further incite anti-vaccine sentiment.

    In any case, it became a big issue shortly before the Australian Open started, and a number of tennis players and affiliated parties voiced their desire to move on from it. While an approaching tennis event is usually highly anticipated, attention was diverted away from the tournament this time.

    The Australian Open is the Grand Slam tournament with the shortest history, and organizers are making various efforts to promote it. Each Grand Slam has its characteristics. In Melbourne, where the "happy slam" takes place, the people there greet us cheerily, and you can feel their warm welcome. The tournament cherishes athletes.

    Rafael Nadal, the all-time record holder for most Grand Slam titles, said in a press conference that "there is no one player in history that is more important than an event." I agree that the tournament is great "with or without" Djokovic or other players.

    As for Naomi, she lost in the third round. She faced multiple match points, so I think her performance itself wasn't bad. But during her winning 2021 Australian Open campaign, she won the fourth round despite her opponent leading at the match's onset. She turned it around by saving the opposing player's match points. There is only a fine line between winning and losing in tennis. Naomi was able to perform well from this year's first round, so I hope she can keep it up going forward.

    Naomi began practice for this season from November 2021, after a rest period. She set about training after reflecting on her natural liking for tennis, which is at the essence of her activities. Even though she enjoyed tennis as a child, I think she realized those feelings were fading as she went pro and was required to achieve good results. In a press conference before the competition, she said her goal this year was "to have fun," and this must be from her wish to return to her roots.

    Naomi dropped from 14th to 85th in world rankings announced after the Australian Open. These reflect a player's performance over the entire previous year, so if they don't compete in matches, their ranking falls. We plan to carry on preparing for future matches while viewing this rank calmly. We are in a time where women's tennis matches are unpredictable because there are many excellent players, instead of just a handful like in the past. Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins was 30th in the world, and last year's U.S. Open women's final was fought by unseeded teenagers.

    It's a situation where players on a roll can advance to the next round. Therefore, even if Naomi's rank falls and she isn't seeded, I think she has the confidence to advance to the finals of any tournament, so long as she focuses and wins one match at a time. She is scheduled to compete in two meets in the U.S. in March.

    (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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