Tennis

Osaka's split with coach shocks tennis world

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

Deep into the Melbourne night on Jan. 26, the newly crowned world No. 1 was still fielding questions from a room full of reporters.

“For the second grand slam final of your career, what kind of things did you talk about with (coach) Sascha (Bajin) beforehand,” a journalist asked Naomi Osaka in the aftermath of her thrilling Australian Open win.

Osaka briefly gazed downward and then broke into a chuckle as she responded.

“I didn’t talk to him.”

“Is that different?” the reporter followed up.

“We haven’t really been talking, to be honest, before any of my matches here. He would tell me one thing and I’d be like ‘OK.’ That was it.”

A smattering of laughter came from the dozens of journalists in the press room, then Osaka was asked by another reporter if she feels like a grownup, and the news conference pushed ahead.

At the time, those comments were easy to dismiss as just another one of the many quirks of Osaka’s multifaceted personality. Surely player and coach had talked about the match more than that, observers may have thought. Osaka was just speaking in hyperbole.

It turns out that remark foreshadowed the end of a roughly 13-month partnership with Bajin that saw her rise from No. 68 to No. 1, win two grand slams and a third title in Indian Wells, and develop from a young player with potential into one of the sport’s biggest stars.

All told she compiled a 51-21 record with Bajin on her team after winning just 51% of her matches the year before he was hired.

Compared to other sports, tennis’ coaching carousel tends to move pretty fast. For every Kei Nishikori, who has had Michael Chang in his camp since the start of the 2014 season, there are a dozen others who change coaches on a seemingly annual basis. Men’s No. 1 Novak Djokovic, for example, has been coached by Andre Agassi, Radek Stepanek, Boris Becker and Marian Vajda since the start of the 2016 season, with Vajda leaving and then returning to the Djokovic team over that span.

But even as tennis coaching machinations go, the timing of Osaka’s Twitter announcement makes this a particularly shocking end to a player-coach relationship.

Naturally, players most often part ways with coaches during periods of struggle. In other words: not when they are coming off back-to-back grand slam titles. Clearly performance has nothing to do with the move.

More so, Bajin’s departure comes two tournaments into the 2019 season. If this had been in the works for some time surely the 2018 WTA Coach of the Year wouldn’t have started 2019 in the Japanese player’s camp.

To further muddy the waters, Bajin, who has bounced around and worked as a hitting partner with Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki since parting ways with Serena Williams in 2015 after an eight-year stint, said in August that he was in it for the long haul with Osaka.

“I hope that next year we’ll be working again, and the year after that, and then after and after and we just keep improving and having success. I don’t want to look for anything else,” he told the WTA’s official website. Clearly he saw this as a long-term relationship.

Osaka, for her part, has credited Bajin with helping her overcome the inconsistencies and mental lapses in her play that plagued her in the early part of her career. In that realm, Bajin’s on-court coaching sessions with Osaka have often taken on the look of therapy sessions.

In one example, Osaka, then 20, told him, “I feel like I’m having a mid-life crisis,” midway through the Toray Pan Pacific final in Tokyo in September.

“You got this, easy,” he told her. “I promise you, you can come back from this.”

It’s fair to wonder how she will cope mentally in a similar spot going forward with a new coach presumably taking Bajin’s place. That said, Osaka demonstrated the improvement in her maturity during the Australian Open final when, after blowing three championship points and the second set against Petra Kvitova, she went off court, regrouped, and took back control of the match. Coaching is banned during matches at all grand slams.

Speculation was rampant on social media following the announcement of the split, with reasons running the gamut from financial disagreements to a personal falling out.

Longtime coach and commentator Brad Gilbert wrote that he had “zero clue” why the relationship had ended, while former U.S. star Lindsay Davenport called it a “shocker” on Tennis Channel.

But perhaps it was the mercurial Australian tennis player Nick Kyrgios who put it best when he posted an emoji depicting a pair of curious eyes above his retweet of Osaka’s announcement.

Fans may have to wait a few weeks before getting a look at the new Team Osaka, and we may never get an answer to what exactly led to the end of Bajin’s coaching tenure.

Osaka is scheduled to play next week in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, after pulling out of this week’s tournament in Doha, citing a back injury. But if she skips the Arabian swing altogether she won’t be back on court until March when she’ll be looking to defend her title in Indian Wells, this time without Sascha Bajin in her player’s box.