Center court with Naomi Osaka’s trainer: Tennis matches amid the Ukrainian crisis


This image taken from the official website of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) shows the draw of the Miami Open including the names of Belarusian tennis player Aryna Sabalenka and others unaccompanied by a national flag.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also been impacting the world of sports. There is a great number of tennis players from Russia and its key partner Belarus. With the exception of some cases including international team competitions contested between countries, male and female athletes of the two countries have been allowed to compete in international tournaments as individual players. Osaka’s personal trainer Yutaka Nakamura, 49, who accompanied 24-year-old tennis player Naomi Osaka to two tennis competitions in the United States in March describes the venues’ atmosphere in this edition of his regular series.

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In view of the Ukrainian crisis, I did not sense an air of hostility towards tennis players or affiliated parties during the tournaments in California and Florida in March. I think that there is no great objection to the participation of Russian and Belarusian athletes in the world of tennis as it has strong elements as an individual sport.

The national flags of Russia and Belarus were not seen next to the names of tennis players representing these countries in the draw showing the schedule of matches, and their countries were not mentioned amid announcements introducing each player on the court. Apart from this, there were no great differences to the tournaments’ operations, and the spectators gave mostly the same reactions as usual. This goes for any tournament, but players spend time with their team members as they are concentrating on their matches, and they hardly engage in deep conversation with athletes from other countries.

As tennis is an international sport that has tournaments in various areas across the world, athletes enter into tournaments by registering as individuals, excluding some cases including international team competitions. They meet one another regularly without giving thought to who is from what country.

The sport is popular in Russia – a powerhouse of tennis – and former President Boris Yeltsin, who died in 2007, was also known as a tennis fan. There are many strong tennis players in the country, and if you were an instructor or a player with a certain level of experience, I think you would have some kind of connection with Russian athletes.

On the other hand, there is a massive number of players like Maria Sharapova, Russian former women’s world No. 1, for whom I served as a trainer, that have practiced overseas since a young age. Staff members of a player’s team are not necessarily all from the same country. Kei Nishikori’s coach Max Mirnyi, 44, is from Belarus, but studied abroad at a tennis academy in Florida, and I also have experience being in charge of his training. Naomi’s coach is Belgian, and both tennis players and instructors have deep connections with people from various countries.

There may be criticism towards the decision to allow players from the countries to compete, as well as those questioning why players representing Russia and Belarus will not be excluded.

Even so, as someone who actually attends tennis events, I view each and every player individually and separate them from the news of the Russian invasion, and I think many people are the same.

However, there may certainly be identities of each country, and I think that players of the concerned nations are feeling considerable pressure. Russian tennis star Andrey Rublev, 24, wrote “No War Please” on a TV camera lens on Feb. 25, immediately after he got through to the men’s singles final of the Dubai Tennis Championship. Though this was reported positively in the United States, I think it may be viewed differently from Russia’s side.

Furthermore, 21-year-old Ukrainian tennis player Dayana Yastremska revealed on Instagram that she fled her home in Odessa after spending two nights in an underground parking lot. I think that athletes from the country are truly partaking in various battles, not limited to those on the tennis court.


Naomi Osaka’s personal trainer Yutaka Nakamura is seen in this photo provided by him.

Clay court tennis matches will be continuously held going forward. In March, Naomi reached the final of the Miami Open – a tournament that is second to Grand Slam tournaments in size – and raised her position to 35th in the world rankings. She was able to play seven games, including the final, and she has regained her competitive instincts. Naomi will compete in tournaments in Madrid and Rome from late April before the French Open between May 22 and June 5. She is currently switching her mindset to get ready for clay court matches, and is doing her best to be able to exert all her power at each match.

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Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) and the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) boards made the decision to suspend the WTA / ATP combined event scheduled for October this year in Moscow. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) suspended membership of the tennis federations of Russia and Belarus, and decided to nullify their right to participate in international team competitions until further notice. At present, Russian and Belarusian tennis players can continue to participate in international tennis events, including the Grand Slam tournaments, but will not be able to compete under the name or flag of their respective countries until further notice.

(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 US 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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