MADRID, Spain - Kristina Mladenovic is already seeing the impact of hiring Sascha Bajin as her full-time coach. The Frenchwoman, who reached a career-high No.10 at the end of 2017 and now sits at No.64, has shown immediate signs that she is ready to climb back up the rankings.
Mladenovic confirmed the hiring in mid-April and went on to make the quarterfinals in Istanbul, tallying a good win over No.37 Dayana Yastremska along the way. At this week's Mutua Madrid Open, Mladenovic successfully qualified and knocked out Barbora Strycova in the first round to set up a meeting with No.2 Petra Kvitova.
The hiring represents a significant change for Mladenovic, who has been without a head coach for over three years.
"I'm a perfectionist and the discussion we had in the past, why I had only my mom and the people I had around me is because I really only look for the best," Mladenovic told reporters at the Mutua Madrid Open. "I had very negative and bad experiences when I was younger and I promised myself that I would stick with the people I love and who I believe no matter what, will give me positive energy and great work and someone I really trust. So for the last few years I was really happy with the team as it was."
Speaking on the new partnership, Mladenovic says she and Bajin almost teamed up years ago when he stopped working with Serena Williams in 2015.
"Since I arrived on the tour we've always been on great terms, but just not the right timing. He had another project."
"It was pretty natural. I contacted him personally when I saw he finished with Naomi. He took some time to put on the table all the offers he had and I feel very lucky and privileged. I'm flattered that from all the offers he had, from better players on paper than me at the moment, he believes in me and he chose me. I'm super excited. It's going well so far.
"I'm lucky that it happened because I really like Sascha as a coach and as a person, and I have no doubt he is one of the best, if not the best, in how I see things and how work should be done. He had lots of success in the past so he also proved it."
Mladenovic hopes that the 2018 WTA Coach of the Year can bring his proven track record to another surging story. After working with Serena Williams as a hitting partner for eight years, Bajin was part of the teams that helped Victoria Azarenka dominate the early part of the 2016 season before going on pregnancy leave, Caroline Wozniacki refind her form to make seven finals in 2017, and most notably, help bring Naomi Osaka from outside the Top 60 to become a World No.1 with two Slam titles.
"He's really dedicated to what he's doing," Mladenovic said. "Even when I had nothing to do with his team, I could see how much he was around Naomi or Caroline Wozniacki, it doesn't really matter who it was. You can really see people who are passionate, who hang around and work, who try to learn. I like this from him."
After splitting with Osaka in February, Bajin fielded a slew of offers - from both ATP and WTA players - before deciding to join Team Mladenovic.
"I just felt like this time I had a couple of options to go through, but I thought Kiki was the one who I could help the most out of everybody," Bajin told reporers in Madrid. "That was the simple decision I made. I have to be honest, it wasn't about money. There were other offers where I would have gotten a lot more money, trust me.
"But I really looked at it as, what player do I believe I can help the most with what I know, and at the same time challenges me because I've never worked with such a player. She's very different from Naomi, Serena, even Caroline."
"I don't want to sound like I'm cocky or something, but I don't start working with players unless I truly believe they can beat anybody they play. Given this time on the WTA Tour, when you have 18 tournaments and 18 different winners, Kiki could be more than one of them.
"I don't want to say we're gonna win this or we're gonna win that, but knowing now what I've seen in practice, I told her look, when we go to tournaments I want you to understand I go there and we pre-book our flights for Sunday. I don't even want her to think about quarters. No. We go there to win, we take it one round at a time and we respect our opponents, but at the same time I do believe that there is nobody she needs to fear."
Asked what he hopes to bring to Mladenovic's game, Bajin said the focus is on improving her backhand, serve, and decision-making.
"It's not a secret," Bajin said. "All the players know that maybe her backhand is not the greatest shot. She has an unbelievable forehand. I worked with Serena for eight years. If I can teach someone something it must be a backhand.
"Service percentage, the percentage itself is a little bit low. I worked a lot with Naomi on her big serve. We worked with Caroline always. All that comes with the players I worked with, I learned so much.
"And overall also, just the structure in her game. There was a lot of things that were a little bit unnecessary in certain situations in the match. I want her to understand why not do this at that time and why do this at a certain time."
"I can't change [the serve] in the middle of the season. Half the season is over. The beautiful thing about Kiki is that for us it's pretty clear about what we have to work on in order for her to improve, which is a good problem to have. Now it's just about me picking and choosing the battles for now and saving certain things for later.
"But the serve, we're going to keep working on it but I'm not changing anything. It's already gotten better and that's all credit to the mother too."
"I know that when I play my best tennis - I played all the best girls who are consistent in the Top 10 - I feel like I already have it so it's about me coming back to this consistency," Mladenovic said.
"On top of that, I feel like I have the margin where I can improve. Small details in everything, a little bit more. Fitness is on a great path, serve can be a bit faster with more consistent percentage, more winners on the forehand.
"I know when I have that I was at my highest ranking at No.10. So that's obviously where I want to come back as fast as possible and aim for more. That's definitely a goal."