World No. 1 Naomi Osaka revealed on Sunday at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships that her surprise split with her coach Sascha Bajin was not for financial reasons, adding that it was “hurtful” to hear such rumours circulating.
Osaka’s successful 13-month partnership with Bajin, that saw her win two Grand Slams and rise to the top of the world rankings, came to an end earlier this month when the Japanese star announced via social media that they would no longer be working together.
The 21-year-old did not elaborate on the reasons behind her decision but assured it was not financially-driven.
“Everyone thinks it was a money-related issue, but it wasn’t. For me, that’s one of the most hurtful things I’ve ever heard. I travel with everyone on my team, I see them more than my family. I would never do that to them,” Osaka told reporters on Sunday at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai.
“I think my reason is I wouldn’t put success over my happiness. I think everyone knows, in Charleston and stuff, I’ve had moments. I don’t know, that’s my main thing.”
Osaka was referring to the tournament in Charleston last year that came on the heels of her first career title at Indian Wells. Following her loss to Julia Goerges in Charleston, she had said that she woke up the previous day feeling “depressed” and she wasn’t sure why.
The freshly-crowned Australian Open champion did not say much more on the matter but made sure to pay tribute to Bajin and the work he put in during their partnership.
“I’m not going to say anything bad about him because, of course, I’m really grateful for all the things that he’s done. Yeah, I wouldn’t just come here and say anything bad,” she added.
“I feel like, if anything, you would have to be around him to see or ask him.”
The three reigning Grand Slam champions – Osaka, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber, have all parted ways with their coaches, for different reasons, since they’ve won their respective majors. For Osaka, she says her decision was not as sudden as it may seem.
“It was kind of brewing in Australia. I think some people could see that if they saw how we interacted,” she explained. “I would not want to split on really bad terms, I think, because of course he was sort of the one that, like, made me open up more to people. I didn’t want it to be really, like, a hostile thing.”
Making her first appearance as world No.1 in Dubai, Osaka is joined by her father, her fitness trainer Abdul Sillah, her trainer Kristy Stahr – whom she refers to as “Miss Super Star” – and Japanese coach Masashi Yoshikawa.
She says she will start her search for a new coach after Dubai, noting that arriving to Indian Wells, where she is the defending champion, without a coach is “not ideal”.
Asked what she’ll be looking for in a coach moving forward, Osaka responded: “For me, just to have a positive mindset. I don’t want someone that’s in the box saying negative stuff. That would be the worst.
“Yeah, someone that’s kind of direct, not afraid to say things to my face. I’d rather someone say it directly to me than go around my back. That’s one of the biggest things.”
Osaka seemed in a cheerful mood and looked comfortable discussing the topic. She will face Kristina Mladenovic in her opening match in Dubai. She has been spotted hitting with Yoshikawa on centre court and says the back injury that forced her out of Doha has subsided.
“Yoshikawa-san is not really my coach-coach. He’s just been helping me since I was 16. He’s one of the people that knows my game the most. He’s always around at certain tournaments, he’s always helping. I thought it would be a good idea for him to come here since I’m sort of stuck right now. This is the one tournament that I think I need someone around that’s very helpful,” said Osaka, who made the quarter-finals in Dubai last year.
The 19th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships WTA tournament kicks off on Sunday with the strongest field the event has ever witnessed.
Here’s a look at the main talking points following the draw reveal in Garhoud on Saturday.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 16, 2019
Nine of the world’s top-10 will be in action in Dubai over the next seven days, with Sloane Stephens being the only absentee from that ranking bracket.
The field is headlined by world No. 1 Naomi Osaka, and includes five former Dubai champions. Wildcards were handed to ex-Wimbledon runner-up Eugenie Bouchard, 2016 Dubai winner Sara Errani, former US Open champion Sam Stosur, and Oman’s Fatma Al Nabhani, who is the Gulf region’s first female professional player.
ALL EYES ON OSAKA
Osaka will be playing her first event as world No. 1 and her first since her surprise split with her coach Sascha Bajin, who helped guide her to back-to-back Grand Slam triumphs at the US and Australian Opens. The Japanese star is yet to reveal the reasons behind her decision to part ways with Bajin, but will sit with media in Dubai on Sunday, where she will no doubt be quizzed on the subject.
The top spot will not be up for grabs in Dubai, as Osaka has secured her place at the summit through Indian Wells.
Osaka’s possible path:
R2 Mladenovic/Al Nabhani
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 16, 2019
Fresh from her runner-up showing at the Australian Open, Petra Kvitova will make her first Dubai appearance since 2016. After the final in Melbourne, the Czech world No. 2 had to testify against the man who attacked her with a knife in her apartment, recounting the traumatic life-threatening experience that left her with nerve damage in all five fingers of her left playing hand.
“I’m not sure any day that I’ll be completely over that. I’m glad that this one’s over,” she said in Dubai on Saturday, referring to her testimony in court.
Kvitova, a winner in Dubai in 2013, played her first Grand Slam final on a surface other than grass, at the Australian Open last month. She won 11 matches in a row Down Under, winning the title in Sydney before reaching the championship decider in Melbourne.
“Finally I’m getting over it [the loss in the final] so I can really say it was a good one. It was kind of painful after the final but overall it was a great start to the year so I’m very happy about that,” said Kvitova, who opens her Dubai campaign against either Petra Martic or Katerina Siniakova in the second round.
SVITOLINA BIDDING FOR HAT-TRICK
Elina Svitolina is the two-time defending champion in Dubai and is looking to become the first woman to win three successive titles in the Emirates. The Ukrainian lost to Simona Halep in the Doha semis on Friday and begins her Dubai journey against either Ons Jabeur or Donna Vekic.
KASATKINA’S ROUGH 2019 START
Last year’s Dubai runner-up Daria Kasatkina had a fantastic week here in 2018, where she saved match points against Johanna Konta and Garbine Muguruza en route to the final. After cracking the top-10 for the first time end of last season, Kasatkina started 2019 with a disappointing 0-4 start before claiming a win in Russia’s Fed Cup tie against Denmark. Will she finally get her first tour-win of the year in Dubai this upcoming week?
FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH
Garbine Muguruza v Dayana Yastremska
Caroline Wozniacki v Sam Stosur
Ons Jabeur v Donna Vekic
Zhang Shuai v Anett Kontaveit
Anastasija Sevastova v Hsieh Su-Wei
Caroline Garcia v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Back in the top-100 and looking to keep up her positive start to 2019, Canadian Eugenie Bouchard takes to the court in Dubai this upcoming week with a newfound appreciation for tennis.
The former world No. 5, who is set to make her Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships main draw debut as a wildcard, believes she’s on the right track after struggling for the past few seasons.
The 24-year-old started this year by reaching the quarter-finals in Auckland (lost in a final-set tiebreak to eventual champion Julia Goerges), fell to Serena Williams in the Australian Open second round, and is up to No. 80 in the world rankings.
Bouchard is pleased with how she’s progressed so far, under the tutelage of her coach Michael Joyce, but more importantly, she feels like she’s enjoying her time on the court and making the most of her time off it.
“Obviously when you’re young and you’re on the tour, it was very exciting. But I truly appreciate now what I do as a job and I consider myself very lucky to be able to travel to amazing cities like Dubai to do my job, it’s crazy,” Bouchard told Sport360 at the draw ceremony at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium on Saturday.
“I make more effort now to see the cities I’m in and just appreciate the blessings I have in life.”
Ahead of her opening match against Belarusian Vera Lapko, Bouchard will visit the iconic Burj Khalifa on Sunday. The Canadian’s sole previous appearance in Dubai was in 2014, when she lost in the final round of qualifying.
The 2014 season was Bouchard’s most successful year to date and it saw her rise to No. 5 in the world and reach the Wimbledon final. She also made the semis at the Australian Open and Roland Garros. She hasn’t been able to replicate such results since and has been constantly questioned about whether she’ll ever be able to recapture that 2014 magic. Bouchard insists she is only looking ahead right now, and believes it’s important not to dwell on the past.
“I really don’t want to look back and try to be myself from five years ago. I want to be the best version of myself today and just always give myself a chance. Week after week if you keep pushing and keep giving yourself the chance, then one week you are going to break through. I have that belief and I just have to keep working towards it,” she said.
Helping her try to get that breakthrough is her new coach Michael Joyce, who joined her team last October after parting ways with Johanna Konta. Joyce also coached Maria Sharapova in the past and appears to have struck a strong partnership with Bouchard so far.
“I really like what he thinks about my game, how he sees my game in the future, trying to improve it. I worked a lot with Robert Lansdorp, who actually coached Mike back in the day, so they both kind of have the same voice, which I really like, and it’s just been very enjoyable so far,” said Bouchard.
Asked how she envisions her game’s evolution moving forward, she added: “I think it’s important for me to be very physical on the court. When I’m moving well, that’s when my game works its best because I’m able to take the ball early but also defend when I need to. And then improving weapons like serve, being super aggressive on return. Generally being aggressive and being myself out there as well.”
Bouchard joins a strong field in Dubai that includes nine of the world’s top-10 (Sloane Stephens being the only top-10 absentee). She is 5-4 win-loss so far in 2019 (including qualifying and ITFs).
“I feel like I have made solid steps in the past months, and now it is all about staying healthy and keeping that good work ethic and practicing to keep trying to improve like I have always done. I want to do that now and bring it out on the court during the match,” she said.
“I have not set any specific [goals for the year], like I have to get my rankings up as soon as I can and just give myself chances to get myself as deep as I can in these big draws and give myself chances against the big players in the world.”