Wow. Naomi Osaka won two straight majors. She stood on top of the tennis world. She then parted with the coach who helped her rise to the WTA’s World No. 1 ranking.
You don’t see that every day… or month… or year… or decade.
Bad move? Good move? Necessary move? You might be surprised to realize that I have no strong opinion on this.
Why? Coaching relationships in solo-athlete sports mean something very different from coaching relationships in team sports. Obviously, some principles of coaching exist and remain in place regardless of the communication-based dynamic between the coach and the athlete, but solo-athlete sports occupy profoundly different spaces compared to team sports.
In tennis, the coach and the player travel the world for almost all of a year and map out plans for a given opponent on a given surface. There are so many more layers to peel away in tennis than in team sports.
Competition lasts 10 (WTA) to 11 (ATP) months, not merely seven to nine, as in most team sports. International football is played on one surface: natural grass. Basketball is played on one surface: hardwood. Ice hockey is played on one surface: ice.
There are no “home or away” games in tennis. Sure, Roger Federer plays Basel and Rafael Nadal plays Barcelona or Madrid, but those are not constant sites for Federer’s or Nadal’s matches, as though they get to play 40 matches a year in front of home-nation fans. Sure, they get a ton of crowd support, but they don’t get to play half of their season in a context of sleeping in their own bed the night before the next match.
Tennis doesn’t have a prolonged offseason the way the team sports do. Team-sport athletes have longer periods of time in which they can get away from their coaches.
Also, and hardly least of all in a series of considerations and comparisons, is the fact that in the solo-athlete sports, the athlete hires the coach. That isn’t the case in team sports.
All of this is to underscore the point that in tennis, the coach-athlete relationship isn’t just about winning, though that is ostensibly the main point for both parties in the relationship. In tennis, a coach-athlete relationship is more intimate and constant than in professional team sports. There are and can be exceptions, of course, but on a broader level, this is undeniably true.
A relationship has to WORK. A relationship needs to make both sides feel happy and satisfied — not in the sense of being complacent, but in terms of enjoying this daily process of work as a tandem.
Good move? Bad move? I can’t criticize Osaka if she felt she wasn’t happy about the professional relationship she had with Sascha Bajin. That’s her business. That’s her choice. We will obviously find out if it hurts her career or not. That is her issue to resolve, and hers alone.
That settles that point. There is one other point I wish to make, and that is the following: If you think there is nothing in the history of professional sports which compares to this, I have an example.
The year was 1994. The Dallas Cowboys, a young NFL American football team, had just won their second straight Super Bowl championship by defeating the Buffalo Bills. The game was played in Atlanta, the site of the recent Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.
The Patriots won a sixth Super Bowl in 18 seasons, playing in their ninth Super Bowl in that same period of time. This is the greatest dynastic run in the Super Bowl era of the NFL. This is what the Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s might have become… if their coach and owner had not split up after winning two “major titles.”
Jimmy Johnson was the brilliant but headstrong head coach of the 1993 Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones was the successful but headstrong owner of the Cowboy franchise at the time. The two men were teammates on the University of Arkansas’ 1964 national championship college football team. Yet, from that intimacy came a brotherly fight over who deserved more credit for the team’s enormous success. Rather than stick it out under Jones, the owner, Johnson bolted.
The Cowboys won one more Super Bowl under the next coach, Barry Switzer, but only one, and after that last Super Bowl appearance — Super Bowl XXX in January of 1996 — the Cowboys have not returned to the biggest single game in American sports. A full 23 years later, the Patriots have surpassed them because their owner, head coach, and quarterback have all stuck together.
This doesn’t mean Naomi Osaka will fail under a new coach. It simply means this move has precedent in professional sports. It’s not even a perfect parallel, given that a team sport and a solo-athlete sport are different, as outlined above. However, the connections are obvious.
Whatever you might think of the move, it’s Osaka’s choice to make. We will see what the rest of the 2019 WTA season brings.