Even accounting for the constantly whirling coaching carousel in professional tennis, the abrupt split of 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, fresh off two consecutive grand slam wins, and her coach of one year, Sascha Bajin, is puzzling—partly because it came weeks after her Australian Open win, and partly because no reason was given in her curt statement.
The hiring and firing of tennis coaches is nothing new. In the past year alone, players have shed coaches and found new ones in a frantic do-si-do. Sloane Stephens and her coach Kamau Murray “suspended” their partnership in December (he’s now working with Monica Puig); reigning Wimbledon champ Angelique Kerber ditched her coach Wim Fissette (he’s now back working with Victoria Azarenka) before the WTA finals in October, citing “differences of opinion,” and then hired Rainer Schüttler in November; reigning French Open champion Simona Halep and coach Darren Cahill parted ways in November (Cahill said he wanted to spend more time at home), and she recently hired Thierry Van Cleemput. It’s not only in the WTA either: Andy Murray has tried out many coaches over his career, including Ivan Lendl (now coaching Alexander Zverev) and Amelie Mauresmo (the first woman to coach an elite men’s player). Dominic Thiem had two coaches, Gunter Bresnik and Galo Blanco, until Blanco left for a position at the Davis Cup late last year. And Novak Djokovic, bless his telepathic little heart, has cycled through any number of coaches and gurus, including Boris Becker, Andre Agassi, and most recently, Marian Vajda (for the second time).
Professional tennis, like other sports, can be an incestuous bubble in which players and coaches constantly cycle through each other, but the pool of candidates generally remains the same. Usually, there’s some sort of reason to be divined from all the shuffling, such as performance or a better coach becoming available, or a change in playing style. What’s suspicious about the Osaka-Bajin split is that there is no explanation handy. Neither player nor coach has announced a new partnership yet, and based on results, the arrangement was wholly successful. It’s unlikely that Bajin, who was Serena Williams’s longtime former hitting partner from 2007 to 2015, initiated the split with Osaka after she won two slams and he was named 2018 WTA coach of the year, so it stands to reason that there must have been some other factor that prompted Osaka to go her own way. Not that anyone, including fellow players, seem to know what it is. Although really, what would Nick Kyrgios know?
According to a speculative report from Japanese outlet Nikkan Sports, there may have been tension between the two during the Australian Open; the article said Osaka practiced without Bajin during that tournament on some occasions or for only brief sessions on others. The Guardian, meanwhile, posits that Osaka “could have suffered an early dose of the celebrity virus” that may have precipitated the change. Other rumors swirling on tennis gossip sites—PEDs! Some conspiracy involving Serena!—are less coherent. What is known is that Osaka has worked with a number of coaches throughout her relatively short career. Before Bajin, she’s had Australian coach David Taylor (currently with Elise Mertens), and American coach and former top-five player Harold Solomon (he went on to coach Genie Bouchard for a brief period). At age 15, Osaka worked with Patrick Tauma at his Florida academy, and before that, she was coached by her dad, Leonard François.
Maybe Osaka just likes to switch things up and avoid complacency. Maybe not. If you know anything about what caused the Osaka-Bajin split, or have any other tennis scuttlebutt to share, drop a line.