Naomi Osaka splitting with her coach, Sascha Bajin, after little more than a year and two grand slam triumphs together shocked many people in tennis but, if the world No 1 wants no more than to explore new strategies and schedules, it could lift her even further away from her rivals.
They announced the divorce on Twitter on Monday and have issued no statements since. The Japanese media are speculating they started to grow apart towards the end of the Australian Open last month, claiming she did not agree with some of his ideas and even practised alone, but that did not appear to be the case at the time, as she powered on to her second slam title in a row at just 21, with his happy endorsement.
Another suspicion is that the beguiling Japanese prodigy could have suffered an early dose of the celebrity virus, after rising 72 places in the rankings in less than 12 months and being paraded as the bright new face of tennis, with endorsements showering down on her after winning her second slam title.
Whatever the reason, it will be a nailed-on certainty it was Osaka’s call. While these jobs are nowhere near as glamorous or well-paid as fans might imagine, they pay the rent and there are only a few available at the top of the game. It is implausible that Bajin was the one to walk.
It could be that Osaka hired Bajin in the first place to pick his brains about Serena Williams, with whom he worked as a hitting partner for seven years – and it certainly paid an early dividend when she beat the 23-slam champion in straight sets in Miami last year, before working her way through the schedule to upset her again (in more ways than one) in the final of the US Open. After a minor dip in form, Osaka followed that breakthrough by winning the Australian Open, becoming the first back-to-back champion since the American herself, in 2015 – and the first debutant winner to double up since Jennifer Capriati in 2001.
Osaka’s sign-off for Bajin was blunt and to the point: “Hey everyone, I will no longer be working together with Sascha. I thank him for his work and wish him all the best in the future.”
Bajin responded: “Thank you Naomi. I wish you nothing but the best as well. What a ride that was. Thank you for letting me be part of this.”
There had been no hint of a breakup when Bajin spoke on his own terms in Melbourne. Nor did it seem as if their attitude to training was miles apart. “We had an unbelievable, great season last year,” he said, “but, after having just two weeks’ break, she came back and showed up and really worked her butt off. She’s a hard worker. That’s why she’s here.”
As for methodology and tactics, they also worked on the same page. “From the very beginning, she was a big hitter. I didn’t have to teach her how to hit the ball. Maybe it was a little bit more like telling her there are other things out there than just hitting very hard. We worked on her angles, slicing. I wanted her to come in a little bit more.” And she did, to great effect in a tense three-set final against Petra Kvitova.
Bajin spoke warmly, too, about Osaka’s level-headedness. “She’s still the same,” he said, smiling. “That’s the beauty about her. She’s still the same girl that she was even a year ago. In my mind, at least, she didn’t change. Maybe she’s a little bit more open to you guys, used to more crowds and questions. Maybe on court she’s more confident, just good things. She’s still the same girl.”
And he told the Women’s Tennis Association website in a one-on-one interview last August: “I believe in longevity and that if you work with someone for a longer period of time you can work more efficiently.”
That did not seem to hold much traction with Osaka who, for all her charm, looks to be a hard-headed professional also. She has had the benefit of a wide range of advice in her career, from her father, Leonard François, when she was a young teenager, followed by Patrick Tauma until 2013, the former top-five player Harold Solomon the following year, then David Taylor, who made way for Bajin towards the end of a low-key 2017 campaign.
Bajin, a light-hearted joker on her humour wavelength, appeared to be the perfect foil for the most precocious talent in women’s tennis, but there is a culture of short-termism in the player-coach relationship and he will not have been entirely thunderstruck. He said when named coach of the year last season: “Easy to be a good coach when you have a great student.”
Permanence throughout tennis seems very much a thing of the distant past, especially in the women’s game where all of the current grand slam champions have since parted with their coaches. There is even an unofficial clearout window towards the end of year, which Jo Konta, who is enjoying renewed success with her latest coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, talked about recently.
“It could be a bit of timing with that many changes,” she said. “For example, with Simona [Halep] and Darren [Cahill], they had been together for years and years and, from what I hear about that split, he wanted to spend some more time at home. They seem very close still. There were quite a few changes last year.”
And now Osaka is alone at the top of the mountain, for the time being at least, doing it her way.
GB face Kazakhstan in Fed Cup
Great Britain have landed a home tie against Kazakhstan in the Fed Cup World Group II play-off. The GB captain, Anne Keothavong, was desperately hoping for another home tie and got her wish in Tuesday’s draw.
Britain booked their place in April’s play-off after a dramatic Europe/Africa Zone Group 1 win over Serbia at the University of Bath on Saturday. It was Britain’s first home Fed Cup tie since 1993.
Keothavong said: “Words cannot describe how happy we are to be drawn at home. We all saw last week the fantastic atmosphere home fans create and the role they play in lifting our players beyond their limits. This will be something for everyone to look forward to and I hope the team can do their part to inspire more people to take up the game.”PA