So far nobody has been able to tell the world why Naomi Osaka split with her coach just a couple of weeks after winning her second grand slam at the Australian Open — but she may have given us a hint it was coming during the year’s first major.
Osaka, who added the title at Melbourne Park to the US Open crown she claimed last year after defeating Serena Williams in a controversial final in New York, stunned the tennis world on Tuesday by revealing she was parting ways with Sascha Bajin.
Since teaming up, Osaka has gone from being ranked in the 70s to World No. 1 and has won her first two grand slams. The Australian Open win over Petra Kvitova saw the 21-year-old become the first woman to win successive majors since Williams in 2015 and the youngest to do so since Martina Hingis in 1998.
But despite her success, a simple announcement on Twitter revealed she and Bajin would no longer be working together. Since then, she and her management have declined to add further details about the reasoning behind the split.
While the revelation surprised legends of the sport and commentators, American tennis reporter Jon Wertheim today referenced an exchange Osaka had with reporters after the Australian Open final that may have suggested Bajin wasn’t as crucial to her success as everyone thought.
Q: For the second grand slam final of your career, what kind of things did you talk about with Sascha beforehand?
Osaka: I didn’t talk to him (smiling).
Q: Is that different?
Osaka: I don’t know. Yeah, no, like, we haven’t really been talking, to be honest, like before any of my matches here. He would tell me, like, one thing, then I would be, like, OK. That was it.
If Osaka had been relying on Bajin’s advice for her success, she sure hid it well.
In his column for Sports Illustrated, Wertheim suggested Osaka’s decision alludes to her flourishing self-confidence. He also said it’s not such a huge shock for players to split with coaches when they’re winning, because mentors appear more valuable during the tough times.
“To me, the real story is Osaka,” Wertheim wrote. “In releasing Tuesday’s statement she made a more abstract statement as well. This was a decisive, unexpected move that perhaps suggests she’s more assertive and businesslike than one might have expected.
“During the rough patches — provided the player can afford to make payments — the coach is critical. Coaches provide support and emotional succour and work out kinks in the player’s game.
“In times of success, the player often wonders, ‘What do I need him for? I achieved this. I did the hard work. Now I am paying him this fat bonus. And he is taking credit?’”
Bajin rose to prominence as Williams’ hitting partner, becoming a confidante to the American star over eight years before venturing off to work with other high-profile players like Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki.
Bajin met Osaka in Paris when he was working with 2018 Australian Open champion Wozniacki and while they didn’t click immediately, the encounter sowed the seeds for what would later become a fruitful relationship.
Speaking last September after qualifying for the US Open semi-finals, Osaka praised Bajin for his calm approach.
“Since I was working with him — and I tend to be a bit negative on myself — I feel like I’ve gotten a little bit more optimistic,” Osaka said.
“He tries to make every day really fun and exciting. For someone like me, that sort of thinks sometimes things are boring, that’s good for me.
“I fight myself a lot, so he’s sort of been, like, the peacemaker.”
Opening up about his relationship with the Japanese icon at Flushing Meadows, Bajin said his star pupil already had all the necessary tools to beat the best and it was his job to mould Osaka into the complete package.
“She’s been a big hitter before I started with her. She had this power. It’s not that I added to her,” he said.
“She knew how to play tennis. She maybe didn’t know quite how to handle it or control it; didn’t quite know when to pull the trigger, when not to; maybe didn’t know that there were even other ways of putting pressure on the opponent by just taking pace off the ball.
“So I was trying to kind of maintain the raw power, and then, at the same time, also show that there are other ways of creating pressure.”