Moments after Naomi Osaka beat Madison Keys to reach the Open final, Inside Tennis and some Japanese reporters spoke with Osaka’s articulate coach Sascha Bijan.
INSIDE TENNIS: You’ve spoken about Naomi’s innocence, do you think in some way that will help her going into this huge final?
SASCHA BAJIN: I don’t know if that necessarily helps to beat Serena. I think it’s just beautiful to see. She has to do a lot more than just be innocent on court in order to beat [Serena].
IT: What will be the key against Serena with her big shots and big serve?
SB: Luckily, Naomi has now [played] a couple of big hitters [Aryna Sabalenka, Madison Keys] ahead of her. What really helps is that she played Serena once already in Miami. She beat her once before, so I know the belief is there. But again, Serena is not the same in a Grand Slam final as she is in the first round of Miami. We know it’s going to be a tough ask. We know that we’re going to try our best within our team to make Naomi ready for this. Plus I’ve got a couple of insights to give her.
IT: Talk about that. Does it help that Naomi’s coach worked so extensively with her opponent?
SB: I’m sure it helps her, knowing that i was with Serena for so long and in trusting everything I tell her. But I’m definitely not going to give away any secrets.
IT: Some coaches for players going into their first Slam final say relax, just enjoy it. Others say, Go for it, grab this victory. What will you tell her?
SB: I’m definitely going to tell her to go for it. I want her to enjoy it as well, but ultimately we’re not here to just be in the finals, we‘ve got one more [win] to go. We’re not going to be satisfied with second place. We’re just going to keep the routine going. I know Naomi is going to enjoy her off day tomorrow, maybe play a little, get a little bit of food, and treat it as a normal match.
IT: You can imagine her lifting the trophy?
IT: What was the key to tonight’s match? She played with such strength and went 13-0 defending break points. Talk about that in a ‘big moment’ way.
SB: I loved seeing that. There was this tough game going from 1-0 to 1-1. I liked seeing her composure, that she kept competing and treating every point as if it’s the last. I’m very proud of her, because pressure was gaining on her in those service games throughout the second set. But that shows how much she’s matured throughout this tournament and the last months, so I’m really proud of her today.
QUESTION: She stayed so calm in the semifinal. How do you analyze this match?
SB: I know Naomi – I don’t think she was calm. I wasn’t calm sitting outside, [and] I don’t think she was calm playing. But I really liked that she just focused on herself, that she didn’t show any frustration or any nervous energy. The fact that she had never beaten [Madison] before maybe made her believe she had nothing to lose. Maybe that helped her relax. Whatever the case, I’m going to have to ask her how she managed it, so that I know it, so we can do it the next time.
Q: She fought off 13 break points.
SB: Ultimately she was serving more throughout the second set. Madison started playing unbelievable shots and it wasn’t necessarily that Naomi did something wrong that gave Madison those break chances. I kept telling Naomi, just keep competing and hold on to it and if Maddy can keep that level up, then hats off to her. Ultimately Naomi was just a tad better on those big points.
Q: She played Serena in Miami, but Serena’s changed a lot over the year.
SB: Of course, Serena is a different player now than she was in March. She’s had way more matches, she’s way fitter. But overall, Naomi is going to have to focus, take it one step at a time, one hit at a time, one point at a time and not think too far ahead. Focus on what she can control – her fight, her competitiveness. If she does that, no matter the outcome, I’m going to be proud of her.
IT: How is she as a student? Is she a good learner? Does she listen and grow?
SB: Yes, very much.
IT: That makes you feel good.
SB: Obviously, yes.
Q: How did she mature in this tournament?
SB: You don’t mature overnight. This has been a long process for her, through many years of hard work. Finally the fruits are coming down. That’s not just me, also. A lot of credit to her mom and dad. The Indian Wells victory definitely helped her believe that she could keep that level up for two weeks. Ultimately, the strength and conditioning coaches are doing such a great job that she’s physically fit. That helps her a lot, not being stressed out on court, knowing that she can go longer than maybe some opponents. A lot of things are just coming together at the right time at the right place.
Q: Why did her mentality become so strong?
SB: Her mentality is so strong because she’s physically ready. That takes a lot of pressure off of her, knowing hat she can outlast her opponents, that she can actually rally with them. And if she has a chance, she converts it. I always believed in Naomi. She knows what to do in what situation, when to pull the the trigger and when not to. Plus her serve is looking better. She’s starting to get better timing on these big courts as well, because she has only played on Ashe two times. It makes a difference if you play here or on Grandstand, this [Ashe Stadium] is an indoor court today. I’m very excited about the final.
IT: A magazine said she was the coolest person in tennis, but does she understand that, maybe next to Serena, she’s one of the most loved persons in tennis?
SB: I don’t know. We don’t look at it like that – if they like us, or like Naomi, I’m super happy. Even if the public didn’t like her, I know how she truly is, and I’m a ride-or-die person. Naomi’s a great girl. There’s nothing not to like about this young lady. She’s honest, she plays great tennis, she shows emotion out there. One day she’s going to be a champion and we’re going to try and make that happen on Saturday.
IT: In one word or one phrase, describe Naomi Osaka.
SB: Beautifully different.
Q: Do you think Naomi respects or admires Serena too much?
SB: No, she beat her last time already. She lives for these matches. From the beginning of the tournament she was rooting for her. Same as me. I always root for Serena as well, unless she has to play Naomi. But I think she wants to beat her.