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Far-Reaching Jolt : Japanese Contingent in Melbourne Shaken by News of 7.2 Earthquake

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Japanese journalists, tennis players and coaches have spent the last two days frantically calling home, watching their country cracking and burning on international television.

When news of Tuesday morning’s massive earthquake near Osaka reached the large Japanese contingent here, players clustered around television sets at the National Tennis Center. Players from southern Japan, nearer the epicenter of the magnitude 7.2 temblor, exchanged anxious news about family and loved ones.

Naoko Sawamatsu, ranked No. 26 in the world, was notified by her coach early Tuesday morning only that she should call her family in Ashiya-shi Nishinomiya, halfway between Kobe and Osaka. Sawamatsu said she tried 30 times to reach her family but couldn’t get through.

When the phone did finally ring at her home, there was no answer.

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“I thought this might be something serious,” Sawamatsu said through an interpreter following her 6-3, 6-3 victory today over countrywoman Ai Sugiyama.

“I couldn’t get any news out of this, so I contacted my aunt in Tokyo. She told me that when the earthquake actually occurred, my brother took a mobile phone with him. He phoned my aunt and told her that everyone was OK.”

While her family escaped--including Sawamatsu’s parents and grandparents--their family home was destroyed. Sawamatsu spent the rest of the day attempting to contact friends living in the small suburb. She said she heard an unconfirmed report that her oldest friend had died in the quake.

“Of course, there are a few others I know of who might have been killed, it is a small place,” Sawamatsu said, visibly upset and speaking slowly. She said she has still not been able to reach her parents.

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Facing her first match in the Australian Open, the 21-year-old asked her aunt for advice: Should she come home or stay in Australia. Sawamatsu’s aunt, Junko, won the doubles at Wimbledon in 1975. Her advice was to stay.

“My aunt said that if I could do well here in tennis, it might be the happiest news my family would receive in a long time,” Sawamatsu said. “Before I spoke to my aunt, I wasn’t even thinking of withdrawing. I was thinking about everyone and are they safe. The more news I receive from Japan. . . . the number of deaths has been rising. Of course, if I play tennis well, it could be a form of encouragement for the people. But sometimes I say, ‘Should I be here? Should I be playing tennis?’ It’s hard to know.”


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