An Osaka tennis center has been teaching children tennis and English at the same time for the past year in a bid to foster young Japanese tennis players who can compete with confidence on the international stage.

At the Kids English Conversation Tennis School, children gather in a corner of Utsubo Tennis Center in Osaka every Sunday to take tennis lessons in English.

The course started last year as a tieup between the Kansai Tennis Association and the English-conversation school NOVA.

About 100 children are currently enrolled in the one-hour-a-week course targeting 4-year-olds to elementary school kids. Monthly tuition for four lessons is 5,000 yen.

About 25 children gathered for a single course on a Sunday and were divided into three groups.

With smaller tennis rackets in hand, those in one group swatted around a sponge ball tossed about by the coach to learn tennis movements. The children in the second group had a great time zigzagging around the court. No Japanese-speaking was allowed.

The third group of children gathered inside for an English lesson with a foreign teacher. They did not speak any Japanese as they played a game using cards containing tennis terms in English.

Masahiro Sato, chief director of the Kansai Tennis Association, is the man who came up with the idea of teaching children tennis and English.

He used to visit other countries with tennis players on overseas tours and witnessed that other high-ranking Asian junior players spoke impressive English — checking into hotels and even filing protests against umpires in the language. The English ability of Japanese tennis player paled in comparison.

Sato held negotiations with NOVA and the school agreed to establish a partnership in May 2001 to run the tennis in English program.

Naoko Sawamatsu, who was Japan’s top pro in the 1990s, propelling the nation to a team tennis gold at the 1990 Beijing and 1994 Hiroshima Asian Games, said players’ inability to speak English mentally handicaps them.

“I was suspicious of players around me because I did not know what they were saying,” she said. “My anxiety affected my games.”

The language barrier puts extra pressure on Japanese players taking part in international competitions.

Sawamatsu emphasized the importance for Japanese to participate in exchanges with foreigners in English at an early age, pointing out that it is not unusual for tennis players to win titles in their teens.

Young tennis players may feel insecure about moving onto international competitions if they lack English skills, Sawamatsu said.

The manager of the course is considering changing the teaching method by bringing in foreign coaches who can teach children tennis in English and opening a tennis training camp in the U.S.

“There are at least five promising children in Osaka. I want you to see them 10 years from now,” Sato said.

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