Naomi Osaka confessed it felt “depressing” not being able to summon her best form on her WTA Finals debut this week but her coach Sascha Bajin insists the team is still hopeful she can make the semis, despite losing both her group matches so far.
It’s been a wild season for Osaka and her camp, especially the last two months – a period that saw her win her maiden Grand Slam at the US Open, and follow that up by reaching the final of her home tournament in Tokyo, and the semis in Beijing. She is seeded No. 3 in Singapore and has a must-win clash with Kiki Bertens on Friday.
A left hamstring injury seems to be bothering Osaka, although she wouldn’t discuss it during her press conference on Wednesday. Bajin maintains that they’re still “in it to win it”, knowing all four players in the Red Group can qualify for Saturday’s semis.
Sport360 caught up with Bajin in Singapore on Thursday, to discuss Osaka’s success this season, how she’s swatting away any pressure, and how they plan to keep her star rising next year.
When I spoke to Naomi in Beijing, she talked about how the memory of winning the US Open final is still a sad one, because of everything that unfolded that day. What have you been telling her to try and change that memory into a happy one?
It was really sad and to be honest we haven’t really spoken about it that much right after, she didn’t really want to speak about it and I respect that. Sometimes I’d slip or slide a little comment about the US Open, kind of trying to normalise the whole situation, and just make it look like any other tournament, but she wasn’t really too fond of it to speak.
Going back to Tokyo, we talked a little bit about how she felt pressure, or how not, she said she didn’t feel that much pressure, which was surprising to me. Mostly we just tried to focus on making sure she feels good on court, off court, keeping her happy, and making sure that we keep our daily routine. That kind of distracts you from where your mind could wander off and keeping her busy definitely helped as well, not to over-think stuff.
Naomi is a very smart girl, she figures a lot of things by herself, it wasn’t me so much going in and talking to her about you know, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, think like that’, no, she’s very good at that.
She told me that you’ve had a recent conversation with her, urging her to open up to you more…
When she says that maybe I want her to open up a little bit more because I’m the type of guy who always tries to help. So I had to learn a lot from Naomi that I have to trust my player as well a little bit more. But ultimately the more open you are and share your thoughts, which maybe because she’s a little bit more shy and young and hasn’t really learned to talk about, and it took me a long time to learn that as well in any relationship, not only with my player but with my mother, with my friends, with my girlfriend at the time, just to really open up and talk about feelings.
It’s very hard and you need to trust the other person. Trust doesn’t come overnight, I understand that. I can’t force it. Ultimately I hope that Naomi sees that I only have her best interest at heart and that I only wish her well. The more she talks about it, the more she opens up and shares her thoughts the more I can understand what I need to do in what situation.
Do you think it’s important for her to process everything that happened over the summer, and her US Open triumph, before she thinks about next season, so there aren’t any bottled up emotions?
I think slowly in the offseason it’ll settle in. Everything has been going so fast, she was 74 after Hobart and now she’s here in Singapore, not many people expected that, I don’t know who did. Having a Grand Slam title definitely changed her life. I believe that a couple of days off, slowly it’s going to sink in.
What was it like witnessing the reception she got in Japan after the US Open?
I went back home after the US Open for one night and then I flew to Tokyo. She came after me, she went to Tokyo and I went to Tachikawa. So I didn’t see the reception she got at the airport. I’m not too sad about that because I heard it was crazy. Like a bunch of photographers and she held a press conference with over 400 media outlets and stuff, which is ridiculous, but beautiful to see as well that one individual can spark such a hype and create this big wave through a whole nation and being part of it makes me feel very proud and blessed.
She says her form this week in Singapore has been “depressing”, any particular reason she can’t find her rhythm here?
I think she struggles a little bit with the surface, with the balls. It’s so different from any other hard court. The court is very slow, it doesn’t feed into her. But yesterday when she told me she’s so sad that she can’t find a way to win. And I told her that, and I don’t want to sound cocky by any means, all these girls that are here are great champions, but I told her yesterday, ‘You played at like 70 per cent, and you’re still able to compete and are on the verge of winning against these Grand Slam champions, No. 2 in the world and against all these great players, that’s a good problem to have’.
And then I reminded her about the first matches we had together, where the opponent wasn’t ranked this high, or had as big of a name and she was laughing about it and had a small smirk across her face. I tried to tell her and remind her how far she’s come and not to expect too much of herself and I know she’s trying really hard.
To me, the biggest thing I tried to teach her this year was not to rate her performance just upon the outcome of the match, that’s just a result, that’s just a scoreline. Everything you do before that is what you should rate. And I think slowly she’ll see that. She loses the first set, still comes back wins the second, is I a winning position in the third against Kerber is beautiful to see; where before I heard maybe she would have let the second set go. And we’re still in it to win it, there’s still a chance to go.
Have you been checking all the qualification scenarios for her?
I’m checking. I haven’t slept all night, I’m checking for her and everybody else I guess. That’s my job.
What are some specific things you’d like to see her improve moving forward, things you’ll work on during the offseason?
We’re going to work hard on first-serve percentage, that’s something she has to improve. And mostly just maybe coming in a little bit more, taking time away from shorter alls, making sure she steps in on those and then finding her way to the net once or twice, like she’s done yesterday with good success. So I want to encourage her to do that more, making sure she makes the right decisions on court, understanding when to play what ball.
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