NEW YORK, New York - Sascha Bajin has always taken a holistic approach to tennis, whether while serving as Serena Williams' hitting partner or now coaching Naomi Osaka in the best season of her young career.
The 33-year-old German earned his stellar reputation on tour during his eight-year stint as Serena's hitting partner, which ended in the spring of 2015. So it was no surprise that he was a highly attractive free-agent for the tour's top players. Bajin worked with Victoria Azarenka, Sloane Stephens, and Caroline Wozniacki over the last three seasons, but he seems to have finally found a home with 20-year-old Osaka.
"I always just did my job, starting with Serena," Bajin told reporters at WTA Coaches Media Day at the Western & Southern Open this summer. "Maybe the first two years when I was with Serena I was a little bit more cautious in telling her something because it's Serena. I don't want to say some wrong. But the last three or four years with Serena I did the same job I have now. Maybe less on court coaching. [Serena] doesn't need too much of it," he said with a smile.
"Same thing with Vika, where we had a preseason alone. I tried to help Caroline whenever I can. Same thing with Naomi. If I can help bring food I'll still do that. I believe in helping more than just on court.
"Of course I learned a lot from all the players I've been with more than they've learned from me, for sure. I think I've paid my dues."
Bajin's partnership with Osaka nearly didn't happen. Bajin injured his ankle in the first five minutes of their first trial session together in Florida during the off-season. But the famously shy and reserved Osaka liked his vibe, and Bajin saw in Osaka an intriguing long-term project.
"I almost wanted not to travel anymore just because the last three times things ended a little bit too quick for me," Bajin said. "I believe in longevity and that if you work with someone for a longer period of time you can work more efficiently. You know them better. It's just a more intimate thing.
"But then she's such a sweet girl and the family was so kind and everybody embraced me and you know welcomed me, I was like I can't turn it down. And I really saw big potential in her and I 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. So everything kind of worked out. Things happen for a reason."
"It's definitely a different challenge, but it's actually really fun because you can kind of guide her a little bit. You have to be a little bit more patient. Previous players, they kind of know what they have to do in order to get back there. With her, I'm trying to give her as much space as I can in order to figure herself out. So I'm trying not to tell her what to do too much but just to kind of guide her, leave a little bit of room to see what decisions she takes.
"Experience comes in play a little bit. I believe that that's just the biggest difference to like Serena, Vika, Caroline. These guys know what they have to do in a certain situation to not make the wrong decision. Life is all about making decisions, same thing as on court, whether you want to pull the trigger or not."
Everything finally came together for Osaka this spring in Indian Wells, where she defeated a string of champions and former No.1s to advance to win her first WTA title in her 1st tour-level final. En route to winning one of the biggest titles on tour, Osaka defeated Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Saschia Vickery, Maria Sakkari, Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep, and then Daria Kasatkina in the final. She did it all while dropping just one set. A few days later she would earn her first win over her idol, Serena Williams, in the first round of Miami.
"The beautiful thing of working with Naomi is that you don't have to keep her motivated too much because she really enjoys it," Bajin said. "She really loves working out, she loves playing tennis. It's not that I have to push her to the court. It's more actually of her slowing her down and keeping her grounded."
"She's such a perfectionist that she just gets down on herself and is too hard to herself. So I have to be the contrast. If she's too negative and too down then I have to go and say it's OK. The world is round, the grass is green, everything is alright. But in general she is more hard on herself than she should be. She's doing her thing, she's doing great."
More coaching wisdom from "Big Sascha" below:
Bajin on his coaching philosophy with Osaka:
"I mean it's a little bit of everything. It's still guiding a young person, trying to help. Like, you should go this route without really telling her that she should go that way, because I do believe that if you figure out something for yourself it's worth way more and you have it way more in your mind than if somebody tells you something. So I'm the type of coach to believe that I want to leave a little bit of room for her to make her own decisions. But I kind of want to narrow it down and that's the same with psychological, with technical stuff. I want to narrow down the options."
Bajin on whether he has ever considered coaching on the ATP:
"For me, it's very important that we have a personal connection even though I would like to think I'm a pretty easy guy, very easy going. The year is very long. You spend a lot of time on the road you have to talk a lot. If it doesn't work out then all the money in the world is not worth it. If it's a guy or girl, I don't care if it doesn't match. But so far, I'm very, very happy with Naomi. I hope that next year we'll be working again, and the year after that, and then after and after and we just keep improving and having success. I don't want to look for anything else."
Bajin on his on-court coaching philosophy:
"Of course I have my outside perspective, but I never know what she feels like inside. So for example, what is beautiful to see in the Halep match in Indian Wells, she felt like she needed to do more. In her mind it really wasn't enough because she won the first set, but Halep was making a lot of mistakes. She feels like she wasn't really playing that great and she's playing the number one in the world, so she feels like 'Oh my god I need to do more.'
"I was like no, you just won the first set! It's okay, breathe, you're doing good. You won the first set. In case she does more, you need to do more.
"So usually I like to come out, I have my analysis from the outside. I like the tablet. SAP helps us a lot. I got to admit that, that we see tendencies that change, varying from the previous match to the next match. But in general, she likes to ask me questions, then I come back and give her my own input. That's how it works."
Bajin recalls his first on-court coaching visit to Osaka in Hobart:
"If you look at that first on-court coaching there, I'm very happy that the first 20 seconds are missing. It was a little awkward.
"Because I asked her how do you want it, because of course obviously it's about her and not about me. So I asked would you want me to just come on court and tell you immediately what I think? Or do you want to ask me questions. She said I want to ask questions.
"So I run out on court and she looks at me and I look at her and it's just silent. I was like, 'I Feel like you know you want to tell me something' and she's like, oh yeah sorry! I feel like....' And I was like 'phew'. Those were the longest four seconds of my life. The best thing is the camera came later so I'm very happy they didn't get that."
Bajin on whether his 14-year age-gap with Osaka is an asset:
"Even though I don't have that big an age gap, it's 'just' 14 years, the other day we talked about movies and I mentioned randomly "Bad Boys" and she didn't know that movie. The movie was like 1997 she's like, that's when I was born. I was like oh my god. I've been around longer than I think.
"But I do feel that I have a certain advantage being on tour for like 12 years, but still not being so old. I feel like she still wants to challenge me sometimes, so that makes practice very fun. That makes gym sessions very fun because she wants to compete against me. She loves that competitiveness. I try to keep myself very healthy and eat clean and keep in shape for her so that if we do have these little challenges, that I can make sure that I beat her so I can pull her with me.
"I believe that in the beginning she was a bit more in herself and reserved. But I'm very good at making players feel comfortable and getting them a little bit out of their shell. And I believe that Naomi has also very much improved this year and felt more comfortable with a lot of people. So I believe that these challenges and me being not too old comes in play. I think that's my benefit compared to other coaches.
Bajin on how Osaka's perfectionism manifests itself:
"I think that it's not that she is not prepared to win ugly. I think that her mindset sometimes is just too focused on what is not working instead of what is. And we've been having a few talks about it. I believe that she is on the verge of figuring it out.
"I've seen progress in her last matches where things were really going wrong and she tries to fight and comes back and wins the second set. Like against Linette in Washington, where it was late and raining and the calf is hurting. I was told that maybe a year ago or two she would lose this quicker. Sadly the outcome wasn't as we wanted it. But I see that she is really trying and engaging. I think that if two or three matches go our way this hard court season a lot of other players are going to be in trouble."