When a Japanese journalist asked Naomi Osaka how she seemed so relaxed on the court during one of her Australian Open matches this fortnight, the world No. 4 gave the following explanation.
“What makes me relaxed is the fact that I know that I’ve put in a lot of time during the offseason on my fitness. I feel like I can sort of relax and let the other person do whatever they want, and I have confidence that I can run it down. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why you think I’m relaxed,” said Osaka.
Running down balls is not necessarily the first thing you think of when the power-hitting US Open champion comes to mind. But over the past 10 months, she has made dramatic improvements to her movement and fitness and is feeling increasingly confident in her own physical abilities.
During her tough three-set win over Hsieh Su-Wei in the third round in Melbourne, Osaka had to do a lot of running to deal with her opponent’s creativity. What got her through it?
“I did a lot of offseason training like running, so I just felt like I had to trust my athleticism, in a way,” said the 21-year-old.
The man behind her fitness transformation is her strength and conditioning coach, Abdul Sillah, who joined Team Osaka last year just before Indian Wells, a tournament she ended up winning, announcing her official arrival to the big stage.
“That was his first tournament, so he’s sort of a good luck charm,” Osaka told Sport360 of Sillah.
Squad up 💪 pic.twitter.com/ClXfXB0M4e
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 19, 2018
Indian Wells was Osaka’s first-ever title victory. Her second came six months later at the US Open. Sillah worked with three different players who triumphed at the US Open: Osaka, Sloane Stephens and Serena Williams.
He says he first met Williams in 2004 in San Jose, where he is from. He was there doing a speed camp with NFL players and she was there to watch her sister Venus compete in a tournament while she was recovering from knee surgery. Serena’s uncle started communicating with Sillah and eventually he joined her team.
Sascha Bajin, who used to be Serena’s hitting partner, brought on Sillah to Team Stephens in 2016 when she was sidelined with a foot injury that led to surgery. Stephens won the 2017 US Open just two months after she returned from an 11-month hiatus.
“Timing is everything, right?” Sillah says with a laugh.
He refuses to take credit for his players’ successes and explains why he thinks things started clicking for Osaka at Indian Wells last year.
“She finally had a team around her at that point, like a full team. Which I think probably helped a lot. And when you have a full team, that usually builds confidence,” said Sillah.
That team includes Bajin, who has been Osaka’s coach since the end of 2017.
Sillah believes the common thread between Osaka, Stephens and Serena is “athleticism”. He has worked with all types of athletes, from Olympic speed skaters, to MLB players, and he says the goal with Osaka was to create a “sprinter” out of her on the court.
Osaka grew up idolising Serena and their games share many similarities.
“Naomi and Serena, what they have in common is their ‘teachability’. I always say, if you’re teachable, it’s easy for you to become a champion,” says Sillah.
“The ones that have a problem I believe in any sport are the ones who are unteachable and uncoachable. Because you have arguments and debates which means someone is going to win and someone is going to lose. That someone always thinks they know better than the other.
“Naomi is very humble with that, always asking questions and wants to know and wants to get better. So I think that’s the good dynamic between her and Sascha actually because she’s always asking questions and listening and he’s really teaching her like a student.”
Osaka is “grateful” for Sillah, and the work he’s put in with her.
“Abdul really helped me with letting me believe in the fact that I can play long matches, and I’m okay with that because I don’t really get tired,” she said in Melbourne this week.
There seems to be great chemistry between all the members on Osaka’s team, especially that Bajin and Sillah have known each other for a long time, since the days when they were both in Serena’s camp.
“We were like brothers in a way, we got along pretty good, we had great chemistry and we fed off each other,” recalls Sillah.
Bajin hopes their partnership continues as Osaka keeps going from strength to strength.
“It’s easier to work with somebody you’ve known for so long because then they know you as a person and they know how you think, how you click. You can work together without having to say too much,” Bajin told Sport360.
“Thank God that we have Abdul on the team now and that the parents listened to my recommendation. I think he’s been a very valuable asset to us and hopefully we can have many more years together with everybody on the team.”
While Sillah acknowledges the progress Osaka has made fitness-wise, he believes the main catalyst behind her success was more mental than physical.
“More than anything, I think it was more mental progress. I believe for anyone to become a champion, not a winner, but a champion, mentally they have to be prepared and stronger than anybody else. And that’s what I’ve always talked to her about,” he adds.
“You can prepare someone physically as much as you want, but eventually they will get to a wall and how do you get them over that wall? If psychologically and mentally they’re not prepared, they will never get over that wall, which means they can’t conquer adversity. And only through struggle can we make progress.”
Osaka has certainly had her fair share of struggles this fortnight in Melbourne en route to the final – her second consecutive at a Grand Slam. Can she overcome one last hurdle when she takes to the court against Petra Kvitova on Saturday? We’ll find out soon.
In the middle of telling a joke 😫 pic.twitter.com/85ZkO7RoQ5
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) March 17, 2018
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Abdul Sillah won the US Open with Osaka, Stephens and Williams. Facts have later risen proving otherwise. Sillah worked with Williams and Stephens but was not with either of them when they triumphed at the US Open.
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