Naomi Osaka's split with coach Sascha Bajin ill-timed as youngster looks to step out of hard-court comfort zone

In a surprising announcement this Tuesday, current World No 1 Naomi Osaka announced she had split with her coach of a year, Sascha Bajin. The 21-year-old made the announcement via a tweet, “thanking him for his work” and wishing him the best for his future. While the circumstances of the pair's split are still not known, they have already become the subject of intense speculation, largely due to the minimal statements provided by each. While the split does not appear to have been acrimonious, that it has come hot on the heels of not one, but two consecutive Grand Slam titles, is surprising.

There may have been a few indications of the chill in pair’s coaching relationship, however. Earlier this year, following her win over Petra Kvitova for the title at the Australian Open, Osaka referred to Bajin as her “hitting partner”, rather than her coach, a stark contrast to how she had spoken of him the previous year.

At the start of Bajin’s coaching tenure in 2018, Osaka was ranked 72 on the WTA circuit. At the end of the year, she beat her idol, Serena Williams, at the American’s strongest bastion — the US Open — for her maiden Grand Slam. For his own achievements with Osaka last year, Bajin was named the WTA coach of the year, the debut of that award title.

Naomi Osakas split with coach Sascha Bajin ill-timed as youngster looks to step out of hard-court comfort zone

Naomi Osaka beat Petra Kvitova to win the Australian Open earlier this year. AP

Prior to his stint with Osaka, Bajin had worked with former number ones Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka, and for eight years was the hitting partner of Serena Williams. Wozniacki, in 2017, made eight finals on the WTA Tour and won the year-end championships, while Azarenka won the Sunshine Double (Indian Wells and Miami) with Bajin in 2016. There is enough, then, to indicate, that Bajin has experience. The German, both from his own history and the experience of working with an illustrious clientele, would thus have had more than few crucial pointers to impart to his youngest charge yet, pointers that would have held her in good stead having to defend her No 1 ranking.

To say that the Osaka-Bajin pairing has been a successful one would be an understatement, considering the young player’s meteoric rise and the significant successes she has since had. As recently as September of last year, both Bajin and Osaka indicated they were invested in building on the latter's growing successes, and a future as coach and charge together. In an interview last year, Bajin said that he was with Osaka “for the long haul”. Bajin spoke warmly of Osaka, saying he “… always wanted to figure out why she hasn't been winning tournaments or competing, and what I could maybe do to help her, if I'm the one or not.”

Why then the breakup is a bad idea, especially right now? Osaka’s aggressive baseline play is perhaps most conducive to committing unforced errors, something that has been a problem for her in the past, and something she has said in numerous interviews that Bajin has been instrumental in helping her control. That style of play, in addition to her intense, fast serves are best suited to hard courts, and that has been Osaka’s earliest, most recent, and most successful surface. Both her Grand Slam titles, and her three WTA title wins, have been on the same surface.

If she is to maintain her ranking — and more importantly, her momentum, she will need to continue those results on the upcoming clay and grass seasons, which, so far, have been her weak point. Last year, Osaka made the third round at the French Open and at Wimbledon, but lost in straight sets each time. Her only WTA Premier title — at Indian Wells last year — was also played on hard courts, and all five of the singles finals she has played in her career, Grand Slams included, were on hard courts. While her opponents have been varied, the surface has been familiar territory for the young player, and although she has excelled in her comfort zone, the real test is what lies outside it.

It is in navigating more unfamiliar surfaces as a World No 1 that Bajin’s presence would have been crucial for Osaka.

Peculiar to Osaka is the young ace’s issues with confidence. Still at the beginning of her career, Osaka is often nervous on court, something that could well be attributed to her inexperience and age. Only this January, Osaka said that everyone around her “had more confidence” in her than she did in herself. According to her, her low confidence caused her to commit numerous unforced errors.

“I think my biggest improvement is mental. My game is more consistent, there are not so many unforced errors. I'm not sure how many I hit today, but sometimes last year I was hitting a lot,” she had said last year.

As things currently stand, not one of the current reigning champions of the women’s Grand Slams are still with the coaches with whom they won those Slams: French Open champion Simona Halep split with her coach Darren Cahill, while reigning Wimbledon winner Angelique Kerber split with Wim Fissette following her win. Cahill was one of the names speculated in terms of taking over as Osaka’s coach, but considering the Australian has decided to move back to his home country permanently, it seems unlikely.

Fissette helped both Sabine Lisicki and Simona Halep to better results at Wimbledon, meaning that he may have been a good fit for Osaka at the moment. However, given that the Belgian has returned to coaching Azarenka, that is no longer an option for Osaka.

While she will still have the guidance of her father, who was her earliest tennis coach, it will be important for Osaka to find a coach best suited for her needs in a short time — it may be the earliest stages of what could be an even more successful career, but she will now need to build a new coaching relationship from the ground up, hold her ranking, and find her own all-court game in the process.

One might argue that having won two back-to-back Grand Slams, Osaka has nothing to prove at the moment. On the contrary, it is now, out of her true comfort zone, having to maintain momentum after scaling the peak, as it were, that her harshest tests will come, and one thinks that it is at this point in her career that the guidance of a coach would have been truly vital.

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Updated Date: Feb 15, 2019 13:58:49 IST

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