How Naomi Osaka became the most formidable force in women's tennis

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Simon Briggs
·5 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Naomi Osaka of Japan in action in her fourth Round Women's singles match against Garbine Muguruza of Spain on Day 7 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 14 February 2021. Tennis Australian Open 2021, Melbourne, Australia - DAVE HUNT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
Naomi Osaka of Japan in action in her fourth Round Women's singles match against Garbine Muguruza of Spain on Day 7 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park in Melbourne, Australia, 14 February 2021. Tennis Australian Open 2021, Melbourne, Australia - DAVE HUNT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

When Jennifer Brady walks out to face Naomi Osaka in Saturday's Melbourne final, she will be taking on the human equivalent of a Formula One car, according to Osaka’s physical trainer Yutaka Nakamura.

Of course, any trainer will naturally talk up his or her client – that’s just part of the job. But in Osaka’s case, the last fortnight has done much to support Nakamura’s claim.

Always nifty around the court, she has added a new level of dynamism to her game this year – especially when returning serve.

Starting from a wrestler’s crouch, Osaka has been moving into her first step with such power and balance that even Serena Williams – the best server the game has seen – was broken four times in nine attempts during Thursday’s semi-final.

“Naomi is an unbelievable athlete,” Nakamura told Telegraph Sport in an exclusive interview. “She is explosive, agile, and that’s why I compare her to a Formula One car. People say that her 120mph serve and her forehand are her weapons, but I think her speed can be a weapon too.

“I worked with Maria Sharapova for eight years,” Nakamura added. “Maria built her legacy on the court. But with Naomi, it’s just another level. As an athlete but also as an activist, she has a different voice and she has a different vibe.

“After Sharapova, I thought I had enough of travelling around the world and being with athletes one-on-one,” said Nakamura, who joined Osaka’s camp in July. “I had dedicated my life to the tour, and I didn’t see how anyone could go above and beyond Sharapova. But when I started working with Naomi, I thought ‘This is a different experience.’”

If she can overcome Brady – the 22nd seed from the USA – on Rod Laver Arena tomorrow, Osaka will move to four majors, one behind Sharapova on the chart. But these are very different stories.

Sharapova’s titles were spread over nine different seasons, and the pursuit of them ate up almost the entirety of her career. Whereas Osaka feels like she is only just beginning. Still inexperienced on grass and clay, she has won three of the last four hard-court slams. Worryingly for her rivals, she is still only 23.

Still inexperienced on grass and clay, she has won three of the last four hard-court slams – a statistic that she could improve to four out of five tomorrow. Worryingly for her rivals, she is still only 23.

As a Japanese citizen who has lived in the USA for most of his life, Nakamura understands the tension between Osaka’s different ancestral heritages. He also uses his two languages to “draw on different parts of Naomi. When I am trying to fire her up, I sometimes speak English and sometimes Japanese. I am still playing with it.

“I think that cultural diversity is a gift,” Nakamura added. “Japanese culture is very strong on discipline. Physically, we tend to be on the small side. But Naomi has that blend, just like Tiger Woods, who once claimed he was ‘Cablinasian’. Her father is from Haiti and her mother is Japanese.

“It’s interesting to compare her with Maria, who had that Russian mindset that ‘I will do whatever it takes.’ Naomi is more introverted, but someone with a lot of inner strength. Her capacity to train, the intensity she can handle, goes above and beyond anything I had expected.”

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, holds up the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, in the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in New York - AP/Seth Wenig 
Naomi Osaka, of Japan, holds up the championship trophy after defeating Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, in the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in New York - AP/Seth Wenig

Osaka is also working with a relatively new coach in Belgium’s Wim Fissette. He joined just over a year ago, adding Osaka’s name to a stellar list of former clients that runs from Kim Clijsters to Victoria Azarenka via British No 1 Johanna Konta.

According to Nakamura, the three of them bonded while staying in a house together for September’s US Open.

“You learn so much about someone when you see their daily routines,” Nakamura said. “What time they wake up. How they prepare, work and relax. What pyjamas they wear. You see who they are, with no b-------. And because of the pandemic, we had much more time to prepare.

“The Australian Open being pushed back by three weeks was also a positive. We were all in a house again in Los Angeles. There’s no distractions. You’re only leaving the house to shop for essentials.

“I honestly think that, at the US Open, being in a bubble was helpful. We didn’t have much interaction with fans or other players. Without the crowd it was all about you, how you handled yourself.

“You see yourself more in this pandemic, on and off the court. If you have a path that you want to walk, it’s there. But if you’re not certain and clear, you will struggle.

“That’s why Naomi’s Black Lives Matter message was so important. In New York, she set out to wear a mask with a different victim of police brutality on it in each round. It was brave, because she knew that if she lost, everyone would say she should have stuck to tennis. But it also gave her a mission, knowing that every win was a chance to wear another mask.

“Naomi is so deep,” Nakamura concluded. “She doesn’t express much of her thoughts and emotions but she is learning to be an influencer, in a positive way. She used to look up to older athletes, Serena and Maria, but now she is realising that a lot of people look up to her as well. She has started to see her presence and also herself. As a trainer, and as a team, we are on the right track.”