Naoko Sawamatsu had no intention of offending anyone in Japanese tennis, but when asked about her take on the future of women’s tennis in this country, her usually smiling face stiffened. She sat still for a few seconds, her eyes unfocused and hands toying with her cell phone straps.
After contemplating her answer, Sawamatsu took a deep breath. “This is an embarrassing story,” said Sawamatsu, who reached as high as No. 14 in the world rankings, “but I think Japan is a Third World country as far as tennis is concerned. Everybody thinks so.”
Sawamatsu’s reflection of Japan’s recent slip into the cellars of the tennis world came at the Pan Pacific Open two weeks ago, when no countrywoman advanced past the first round.
As sad as it was to glance at the tournament bracket, fans found entertainment outside of the courts: The stars of the good ‘ol days were back for Japanese fans.
Tokyo Broadcast Station brought former Japanese queen Kimiko Date into their booth to analyze the tournament’s semifinals and finals.
On top of that, Sawamatsu, Kyoko Nagatsuka, Mana Endo, Yone Kamio and the Kijimuta sisters, Akiko and Naoko, were signing autographs for fans before games to raise money for their tennis charity organization, Ichigo-kai (“Strawberry Club,” in English).
Some may argue that Japan has never been able to produce a Chris Evert or a Martina Hingis, but the national team’s success in the April 1996 Federation Cup raised Japan’s status in the tennis world.
Hoping to keep Japan alive, Date edged Steffi Graf 7-6, 3-6, 12-10 in one of four singles. Then, the duo of Nagatsuka and Ai Sugiyama topped Graf and Anke Huber 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 to clinch Japan’s 3-2 victory.
It was an instant classic. It was a duel for the ages. Miss those days? Well, get used to it. In an era when the world has mass-produced teenage phenoms, Japan has taken a back seat.
Six Japanese players, at one point in the mid ’90s, were ranked in the world’s top 100. Date reached as high as No. 4, clinching seven singles titles and marking a Japanese-best 54-28 career record in the Grand Slam tourneys.
A common opinion among the retired pros is that there is little hope, at least in the next few years, of Japan to pull off another instant classic.
“There were several of us who were playing at a very high level,” said Nagatsuka, who is now coaching 14- and 15-year olds. “It was a good example of each player improving to beat the other, which naturally raised the entire level. I don’t feel that in today’s players.”
“On a larger scheme, Japanese tennis might be at the bottom of a hill right now,” said Sawamatsu, who is now a lecturer and assistant tennis coach at Shoin Women’s University in Kobe, her alma mater. “Maybe it’ll turn around. I honestly don’t know how long it will take, but . . .”
It should’ve never taken this long, and Sawamatsu knows it. Looking back at the actions of the Japan Tennis Association after the upset of Germany, Sawamatsu said it did barely anything to build on the success.
She said the JTA failed to invest time and money in the development of the game. Ichigo-kai, which was initiated two years ago by six former Japanese players, has been working to raise funds for camps aimed at junior high students.
Even then, Sawamatsu — one of the founders of Ichigo-kai — said there should’ve been more serious debate on how to raise world-class players in Japan. “I think that hurt us most and we should never let it happen again,” Sawamatsu said.
Then what should be done? From the eyes of the former pros, the answer is two-fold: coaches and environment.
Sawamatsu said Japanese coaches have finally started flying across the Pacific to learn from the world’s best, which she thinks “should’ve happened 20 years ago.”
Nagatsuka is the only one among the golden-age players who has taken coaching youths as a next profession.
She feels there are few Japanese coaches committed to a player willing to travel the world. Case in point: Nagatsuka, Sawamatsu, Endo, Kamio and Sugiyama were coached by their parents at one point.
The affluent environment surrounding Japanese youth players is an exception. Nagatsuka said she has never seen so many young, spoiled players.
Nagatsuka received her first goodies from a sponsor when she was 15. From free shoes to warmup suits, Nagatsuka has seen too many 12-year-olds with no game loaded with top-notch equipment.
“If you go to a national junior tournament in Japan, you’d think you’re watching the pros,” said Nagatsuka, who retired in 1998 and reached a career-high No. 28 in the world rankings. Nagatsuka beat Hingis in the ’95 Australian Open.
“These kids are receiving things that foreign players can never dream of — and these are players who haven’t done anything spectacular. I’ve seen parents carry the kids’ bags. Honestly, they’re too pampered that they lose their ‘hungry’ spirit.”
Sawamatsu, who grew up in Germany as a grade schooler, idolized Graf and realized what it took to compete with the world’s best.
So when she won the All-Japan singles championship title in ’88, Sawamatsu expressed joy but was never surprised.
“The junior players now think the world is playing at a level above the clouds,” Sawamatsu said. “It all comes down to the environment and how a coach can inspire the kids.”
Currently, the highest ranked Japanese player is Sugiyama, who sits at No. 34. But she has recently turned into a doubles “specialist,” being unable to get past the third round of the singles brackets in any of the Grand Slam tournaments last year.
Two players, Saori Obata and Rika Fujiwara, are nearing the top 100 mark, but time will only tell when Japan can actually produce a decent crop of players.
“I’m not saying that if we make a similar environment (as we had in the ’90s), we’ll have more stars,” Nagatsuka said. “We need to change, or else we’re really going to be left behind.”
Or else, local fans will just have to get used to failure.