Tennis coach Sascha Bajin makes the best of an emotional year

Just a few months after hiring Sascha Bajin as her coach, Naomi Osaka won her first tournament, at Indian Wells. EPA/MIKE NELSON

It was the night before the US Open final, and Sascha Bajin could barely sleep. He tossed and turned in his hotel room bed, and thought of all the possible scenarios that Naomi Osaka, with whom he had spent nearly every day of the previous 10 months as her coach, could face against Serena Williams in her first Grand Slam championship match.

He finally dozed off, but in his restlessness, he had back-to-back nightmares -- both taking place at Arthur Ashe Stadium. In one, there was some sort of controversy with Williams, and in the other, there was drama with Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams' longtime coach.

He didn't know what to make of either, but he was happy Osaka won the title in both dreams.

Soon after, he met Osaka and her family for breakfast. There was a nervous energy, and he knew his role was to keep his star pupil as calm as possible and focused on her big day ahead, and not on his weird dreams.

"The funny thing is, I don't believe in epiphanies, and I'm not very spiritual," Bajin said during a rare break at last week's Western & Southern Open in Mason, Ohio. "But I was a total mess in the morning, and I looked like a zombie because I really just hadn't slept. I wanted to keep everyone calm and focused, and I didn't want to be the guy to come down and say, 'You're not going to believe the dreams I just had, and here's what I know,' but I did tell Naomi's mom, and some friends of mine, about them."

A few hours later, Bajin couldn't believe what he was seeing as his nightmare seemed to be unfolding on the court. As everyone probably knows all too well by now, Williams was given a warning for alleged coaching from Mouratoglou by Carlos Ramos, the chair umpire, in the second set, and chaos quickly followed. Williams -- with whom Bajin had worked for several years as her hitting partner -- was adamant she had not received coaching and asked for an apology from Ramos. She was ultimately penalized a crucial game.

Bajin was as shocked as anyone by the events, but there was virtually nothing he could do from his seat in Osaka's box. He had to trust in her as a player and know she had all the tools to emerge victorious.

"I was so nervous, but I knew I needed to be a rock for [Osaka]," he said. "I was feeling helpless, and really just wanted to jump on the court, but I just tried to look calm and exude positivity. She kept on playing. There was this one moment when everything was happening where I could tell she was feeling anxious, and I just looked at her and smiled. And then she went and smiled, and turned around and the camera caught that.

"There are only a few moments in your life where you can find out what you're made of. And that's not something you can teach someone or something you can prepare yourself for. And these are moments where you find out, as a player, as a person, 'OK, I'm made of something special, I'm made of something bigger,' and I do believe that in that moment Naomi proved it to the world."

Osaka went on to win her first major title amid a swirl of controversy and loud boos around the stadium. The sound of the crowd is something Bajin will never forget, but he believes it only signifies just how poised and strong Osaka can be.

Bajin and Osaka had teamed up in November 2017. Bajin, now 34, had previously worked with Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka, but Osaka had offered him his first chance as a head coach. He jumped at the opportunity, and the partnership yielded almost immediate results. She won her first title at Indian Wells in March 2018, and she went on to win in Queens. He was named the WTA's first coach of the year following the 2018 season. She started the year with her second major title at the Australian Open, and claimed the world No. 1 ranking.

It seemed like a dream pairing, and the two were frequently sharing funny stories about each other or posting a picture or video of some of their off-court adventures, but it wouldn't last. Just weeks after her victory in Melbourne, Osaka fired Bajin. The tennis world was stunned.

Neither has commented on the specifics of their parting, but Bajin calls it a learning experience, and looks back fondly on their time together. He wasn't unemployed for long, either -- he was formally announced as Kristina "Kiki" Mladenovic's coach in April, and the two have been working together ever since. She won the French Open doubles title with Tímea Babos in June, and is currently ranked No. 2 in doubles (and No. 53 in singles).

"Her game and approach to it is very different than any player I've ever worked with before, but her work ethic is just as strong as anyone," he said. "She really wants to get better and improve every day, and we're really on the same page about everything. I'm so impressed by her willingness to learn. She doesn't say no, always yes. She makes my job easy."

While he enjoys spending time with Mladenovic, and recently spent a memorable day jet-skiing around an island off of West Palm Beach, Florida, with her and her family, he tries to maintain more of a boundary than he perhaps had done previously.

He says he spent just 13 days away from Osaka from November 2017 to November 2018, and doesn't think that was healthy for either of them. As Mladenovic's boyfriend (world No. 4 Dominic Thiem) is often at the same tournaments, he's happy that she has another companion with whom to spend much of her free time.

Having a little downtime of his own allowed Bajin to work on a book, "Strengthen Your Mind: 50 Habits for Mental Change," released earlier this summer in Japanese. He describes it as a self-help book with life hacks that he has learned from his life on tour and beyond.

It's a mixture of tips (changing up one's daily commute to work, for example) as well as some emotional moments from his own life. A lifelong avid diary keeper, he shares entries from his own journal, including a suicide note he wrote as a 13-year-old, struggling to make it at a tennis academy and being away from his family.

"The book was an emotional project, and I learned a lot about myself in the process," Bajin said. "I just hope to help people make their lives a little bit easier and show that it doesn't matter whether you're rich or poor, or famous or not, certain things affect us all the same ways. I went through some tough times -- I was alone at my tennis academy starting at 12. It was about a three-hour train ride from home. I would see my family about once a month and I missed them a lot. I was made fun of a lot for being skinny and not cool.

"I found the suicide note recently, and I could still see the teardrops on it from when I wrote it. I want everybody to know that if I could keep going, and I was able to make it, then they can, too. I really left it all on the table with this project, and I think it can help some people."

He hopes it soon will be translated into English, as well as other languages. He's not sure if he will write another book, but he will certainly continue documenting his daily life in his personal journal.

For now, Bajin is focused on getting Mladenovic to play her best tennis and maximize her potential, but he insists they are just focused on one tournament at a time. He says he has struggled with appreciating the little (or even the big) moments in the past, and wants to stay more in the present going forward.

"I'm very grateful for every single moment that I had with Naomi, and I'm super excited and grateful that I'm now with Kiki," he said. "I try to remind myself to enjoy it a little bit more. Last year, for example, Naomi wins at the US Open, and I immediately had to fly home to get wooden floors installed in my house, before immediately turning it around and getting on a plane for a tournament in Tokyo that started on Tuesday.

"I never had a chance to appreciate what we accomplished. This tour life goes so fast, you really have to remind yourself to live in the moment and take a minute to enjoy it. You're going to lose more tournaments than you win, so you have to celebrate the hell out of the good times."