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Wim Fissette on Naomi Osaka: “This could actually be a very important time for her career”

Is there a way to turn this rough 2020 season into a positive moment in Osaka’s career? That’s what Wim Fissette is trying to do, as he tells Tennis Majors.

Wim Fissette and Naomi Osaka, Brisbane 2020 Wim Fissette and Naomi Osaka, Brisbane 2020

Wim Fissette, Naomi Osaka‘s coach, is in Los Angeles to get his player ready for Cincinnati and then the US Open, to start with. Clay will come later. He told us about his adventure to get to L.A. and how the team is preparing for the weeks to come. Is there a way to turn this rough 2020 season into a positive moment in Osaka’s career? That’s what Fissette is trying to do. For the Belgian coach, just seeing some tournaments back is something to celebrate.

Tennis Majors: So you’ve found a way to reach Los Angeles!

Wim Fissette: It was actually interesting! Because Europeans are actually not allowed in the U.S., so since April and May I was trying to find a way to get in. And then May 22, there was like an exempt waiver that came out for athletes and essential staff, for few sports. But then checking with the authorities and with the USTA, there was not a clear procedure. So apparently procedure was that the US Open would make a list of a certain amount of names that were necessary for the tournaments to happen and so you’d be able to enter the country.

But it was so confusing that nobody really knew, and that’s why I actually tried and did the trip in May. So I went to Dublin from Belgium (Dublin airport has a US Preclearance facility) but I thought the chance was like 20 or 30% that they would let me in the country. Then they let me in, so I did the trip: Dublin to New York, and then New York to LA. And last Wednesday, I did exactly the same because apparently the players are allowed to get in the US from August 1, but I came on Wednesday to be sure. It was kind of complicated, it took me 24 hours but I’m happy to be in L.A. and to continue the training.

TM: Did you bring your family or did you come on your own?

WF: No, just by myself. During these times, you have more risks when you travel. I was here for six weeks from the middle of May and we kept it extremely low profile: we went to the courts, we went to a very private gym and we all stayed at Naomi’s house. We had the food delivered, we didn’t want to take any risk. Also as a team member, it’s a huge responsibility: I don’t want to be the tourist in L.A. that infects my player or anyone.

So for now, everything is working fine, we’re all back and we focus on the training. But, you know, it’s pretty safe to travel right now because the planes are empty already! (laughs) In my first flight from Brussels to Dublin, there was a maximum of ten people on the flight. Then I had a flight from Dublin to JFK and it was like a big A380 or another big one: there was a maximum of twenty or twenty-five people in it. The airports are empty. I didn’t feel at risk at all.

“Very important to stay smart”

And now you have to prepare your player not only for Cincinnati and the US Open, but also for the clay in Europe afterward. Are you worried about the quick changes of surfaces that players have to do?
First of all, I believe that most of the players are just happy to be able to compete again – on clay or on hard, with or without fans…Of course, this is not ideal but we can’t be very picky in these times: we have to be very happy there will be at least a few tournaments. Also, tennis players have to adjust the whole year, almost week by week, and they are used to that. We never have tournaments in a row with exactly the same conditions: the weather, the balls, the surface (hard to clay or clay to grass, but also fast hard to slow hard…).

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This year will be extra difficult, especially for the players who go very far at the US Open. I also believe that even if we know we will just have a few tournaments this year, we still have to be smart. It’s still better to skip a tournament if the player is not 100% than feeling the pressure of ‘only a few more tournaments will happen this year, so I need to play all of them’. So it will be very important to stay smart. But of course, every player has to decide that for themselves

Is it easy to put the player in this right mindset nowadays despite the whole situation?
Well, honestly, I think it comes very naturally to them. Players miss competing. They like to train, but in the end, they train for a goal and try to win a tournament. So we knew that this was going to be a very difficult and special year. So having the opportunity to play tournaments is a reason to celebrate. Suddenly we have a goal to work to. Players love the competition, this is what they do it for: they want to challenge themselves. In the end, tennis matches will have the same rules. Sure there will be some things that are different, but so be it. We take that. We have to stay in our hotel, that’s fine. We can do that for four or six weeks: I don’t think that’s the worst thing that can happen. It’s just being happy with the opportunity of playing.

“We have already done some weeks on clay”

Sure, because I guess at some point you were fearing nothing will be played anymore this year… Now it feels like a bit of a miracle.
I think so, too. What the USTA has been doing, thinking about every possible scenario: they’ve done an unbelievable job. Again, for the Top ten or Top 20 players, it’s maybe easy to say ‘we don’t need the competition’, but you also know that for players from 50 to 150, it’s super important to get the income. It’s very important, not only for the players but also for their teams.

So how are you preparing Naomi for the weeks to come?
In our preparation in July, we have already done some weeks on clay, technically and tactically, but also to change the scenery a bit during such a long time of only training. So we did a trading block of six weeks, with the first four played on hard. And then we went two weeks on clay: green clay, but we also found some courts on red clay in L.A.: imported from Europe, some beautiful courts. In L.A., a lot of things are possible (laughs).

It helped us to be like: let’s imagine we make the switch to clay courts like it’s going to happen after the US Open. What are we changing? What is the general tactical plan? What do we need to adjust? There’s not a massive difference between tennis on hard court or clay: it’s mainly about the strategy and the footwork. It’s also about getting the confidence of seeing you can actually adjust, that you may only need three days to feel good and not a two-week training block to get comfortable.

“You need the competition to make steps forward”

How do you see this New York bubble going? As well as the NBA in Orlando?
I think so. I mean, the plan is that we go to the site and we go to the hotel and that’s it. We’re not going to be tourists in Manhattan. It’s going to be super strict and it should be like that. We’ve been watching the NBA, and I actually think it’s very fun to watch and it seems to be really working well. Athletes want to compete and so if they have to be in a bubble in one location for a month or two, there are lots of worst things than that.

You must be happy to be able to do your job again, face to face.
Yes! And to move forward and bring my player to the next level, you need to see how the work done in training works in competition. And it’s been a while since the Australian Open. There were things we wanted to improve so at least we worked on those things. But obviously, now we want to see them in competition and then discover what we need to go to the next level. You need the competition to make steps forward.

After such a long time, there’s a risk for players to feel a bit rusty, no?
It’s clear that some players need more matches than others to get back to their best. Some need the matches and the confidence, others just need to be mentally fresh and don’t need five matches to be at their best. Everyone is different. That has been the strategy of some players that need more matches: they did a few more exhibitions or they played the World Team Tennis. Others just want to be ready for Cincinnati or the US Open, and they don’t do that.

“It’s not a surprise that Kim can play at an unbelievable level”

Talking about the WTT: did you watch Kim Clijsters’ matches?
I watched a little bit, yes. It’s not a surprise that Kim can play at an unbelievable level. I don’t know if anyone had doubts about the level that Kim can play at. She was always an unbelievable ball striker. And you don’t lose your technique. But of course, it will be different when she’s going to have to play three or four matches in a row. But WTT was good for her: she played those matches and it’ll give her confidence moving into the tournaments. When Kim is having a good day and is healthy, she can be very tough for the top players, that’s clear. But the question is more if she can still do it through multiple matches in a row.

How do you prepare for this US Open? Because the context had to be so much different. Like usually when they go into a Grand Slam, there’s the pressure of a Major but at least they’ve had tournaments to get into it before. Is the mindset going to be different here?
I don’t think so. Naomi is going to go into it with the mentality of wanting to win the tournament. It’s not going to be different. Of course, our expectations shouldn’t be that she’s going to play perfect tennis right away. Expectations will be a bit lower on the level of play maybe in the beginning, but obviously the mentality to try to win the tournaments. That’s what she’s there for. Working with a player like Naomi, ambition should be to win the tournament. I’m not saying that she’s going to win, but the ambition is definitely to win the tournaments.

She seemed to have dealt with the situation rather well…
Yes. She’s someone with different interests in life, she’s been working on some projects. Also, it was not bad for her to have a few months off. All these players, they’ve played tennis since they’re four, five or six years old and then it’s a journey without a stop. For sure it made her realize again or confirm how much she loves to play tennis and how much she loves to compete. She missed tennis after a while and is happy to train and compete again. She went through this time like without much concern.

“It’s been good for team bonding”

There’s a chance the season could be over after Roland-Garros already, and also that the Australian Open is played a bit like the US Open in a bubble. Is there a point where it could get tricky to deal with?
That’s what it’s going to be like. Careers are long. Naomi is 22 now and the plan is to play for many years. So I don’t think it’s necessary now to rush or to feel like you need to play every possibility that you get. You need to stay smart. If the season is all over after the French Open, well, we’ll take some time off and then have a good pre-season. At the moment we cannot really predict what’s going to happen anyway. Maybe we’re going to have a vaccine in a month or two months or maybe 2021 is going to be a normal year.

You will remember that first year with Naomi! At least it gave you time to get to know each other and work, I guess…
Yeah, it’s definitely special! I will definitely remember that. Working with Naomi has been very fun, very good so far even though we didn’t have the tournaments. It’s been good for team bonding, and we got to know each other better. We spoke after Indian Wells and said that it could also be also a good opportunity: when are we going to have again three months like this to work?

You can build your body, we can work on maybe some zones in your body that were causing some injuries. It could be a huge opportunity, and we have to see it like that, to bring that mindset in our training. This could actually be a very important time for her career. We can build the base here for the next years. So we’re training with that mindset and we’re very curious to see how she’s going to do in the competition.

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