Tennis protege Yujiro Onuma takes hard work in his stride with Hamid Hejazi tutelage
"He always looks like he has got time on the ball, and that is a very rare quality in someone that you can’t teach.”
Hamid Hejazi is describing the style of Cambridge tennis protege Yujiro Onuma.
The pair have worked together for just over a year, a time in which Onuma has cemented his status as No 1 in the 16 and unders national rankings.
It is not an overnight dart up the standings, but one that began at Cambridge Lawn Tennis Club when he was three, attending the venue where his elder brother practised.
“I started hitting against the wall, and got addicted to that,” says 16-year-old Onuma. “A coach invited me to a few sessions and I just enjoyed it after that and carried on.
“I don’t clearly remember the appeal, but I like competing and the competitiveness of the game.”
It is shown by his development, which started with formal lessons aged five at CLTC, under the guidance of Sue Rich, James Mills and Chris Little.
He has since gone on to be a member, and still is, at Cambridge Lawn Tennis Club, Great Shelford Tennis Club, Hills Road tennis centre, and David Lloyd Cambridge.
But his full-time coach is Hejazi, the director of Over & In coaching.
He has been a tennis coach for more than 20 years, starting out in Hertfordshire, and has worked with national champions, leading juniors and ladies’ players that have reached Wimbledon.
Hejazi, who after losing a bit of love for the set-up within British tennis moved to Great Shelford Tennis Club, is therefore brilliantly placed to assess the abilities of Onuma.
“Yujiro is one of the best players for his age that I have ever worked with,” he says.
“Going back 20 years, I used to teach somebody called Guy Thomas and he was probably about the same level that Yujro is now, maybe a little bit better. Guy has an incredible natural talent, but along with that talent for so many is laziness.
“He was a junior Wimbledon quarter-finalist, but for me, Yujiro has got more potential in him because he wants it badly.
“Yujiro has got a good work ethos but he has to be pushed in a very different way to most other people I’ve taught.
“For me you must get to know the person after which you have a chance to best teach the player. He is one of a select few people that enters the conversation that he has a chance of being a seriously good tennis player. There are very few people that even enter that conversation due to the incredibly high level of modern day professional tennis.”
The coach/athlete dynamic is clearly crucial between Hejazi and Onuma.
“He pushes me very hard, I’m very tired, very often,” says Onuma. “It’s really good because every time we’re working on something it’s really exciting as when I play next time, I can see improvement in my game.
“It feels like I’m developing, especially in the year that I’ve had him as my coach.”
Hejazi, who also coaches Cambridgeshire No 1 Tom Hands, explains that one of the biggest constraints on Onuma’s talents is finances.
He coaches the former Trumpington Community College schoolboy on subsidised rates, and that helps both parties.
It provides the impetus and drive for the pair and, in many ways, strengthens their relationship.
“I’m in a fortunate position that I have a tennis coaching company so I’m able to work and travel with Yujiro, without needing to charge the earth to do that,” says Hejazi.
“In return, I expect a lot from Yujiro when it comes to his workrate, attitude and application, and if I don’t get that then he knows the relationship pretty much ends immediately.”
While Onuma is a member of the LTA National Training Camp, he does not receive LTA funding.
Although this does present difficulties, Hejazi believes it can also be one of the factors that helps Onuma as it means a centre does not receive funding for having a good player in their ranks.
“A lot of the centres are fighting to get the players to train there,” he says. “It can often lead to the players almost having a sense of entitlement and a sense of over importance.
“Whereas my relationship with Yujiro is that if he’s not working his absolute hardest, then it’s all over.
“My club is not getting any funding for Yujiro, and I don’t need to coach him but I very much enjoy it.
“I feel like I can make a difference and at the same time it’s a great working relationship – I think that’s a positive for Yujiro.
“In some other cases, the players are allowed to be a little bit lazy because they are treated a little bit too high profile too early.”
Onuma has received financial support from Wilson, SportsAid and the TopSpin Shop, but climbing the tennis ladder is difficult without playing overseas and that is where money comes into the equation.
“It’s quite expensive obviously. It’s quite hard to get into the tournaments nearby like France because it’s quite popular,” says Onuma.
“To consistently go week in, week out to different international tournaments is really difficult for me.
“Other people might be going full time but I’m staying in normal sixth form so financially it’s quite difficult as well.”
Hejazi echoes those sentiments.
“For Yujiro, his biggest challenge right now is having the finances to be able to do it properly.
“He is at a level really where he should be competing an awful lot in a lot of other countries.
“The reality is that he doesn’t have the money to do that, and that seems a bit of a shame.”
Onuma did get the opportunity to play on a bigger stage overseas last summer.
He was selected for Team GB to take part in the Youth Olympics in Azerbaijan, an invaluable learning curve for the teenager, who is set to study at Hills Road Sixth Form College in the new academic year.
“I got shortlisted first, and wasn’t sure how I should take it as I didn’t really know what it was but then they said I was selected,” says Onuma.
“I do feel it’s always important to play against the top juniors around the world as well, to see where you are in the world.
“I really enjoyed it, and you saw the athletes from the other events as well and the hard work and dedication they put in. It gave you the taste for it.
“It was very hot, and really tricky to get used to in the first few days before the events started.
“I won my first round but in the second round I wasn’t used to the heat so it got trickier and I lost a close first set and then the second set comfortably.”
Onuma has a good record in British National Junior Championships, and was runner-up at the British National Championships in Nottingham last year.
In the open national rankings, he was No 76 at the start of the summer, and is currently focusing playing attention on the British Tour and the ITF Pro Tour.
Hejazi describes the biggest challenge in making it in the professional world as the level of the men’s game being “just astronomically high right now”.
He believes it means there is almost no level to reach, it is just a matter of being better than everybody else around you.
That will not deter Onuma though.
“My hope is obviously to try to make a living out of tennis, definitely,” he says.
“Travelling around the world trying to get better and competing in the highest tournaments in the world against the best – that would be a dream.
“That’s more of a long-term goal. The short-term goal would be becoming one of the best juniors in the world. I just want to try to get an ATP ranking, and then get it higher and higher.”
The duo’s targets may be given a small boost from September.
With Onuma going to study at Hills Road, he will have his coach on hand close by – Hejazi has been appointed the new performance manager at the centre.
“We will have a far better training base to work with those guys,” says Hejazi.
“I’m really excited to be getting a lot more hands-on with these upcoming juniors within Cambridgeshire, and hopefully will be able to make a more positive difference to a lot more juniors.”