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Coming into this semifinal at Indian Wells, we knew that Daria Kasatkina could do anything with a tennis racquet. By the end of her 168-minute, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Venus Williams, we had discovered the young Russian could fight with it, too.
According to Kasatkina, she might have done something very different with her frame just a year earlier, back when she was still a talented but tortured teen.
“One year ago, I would have broken the racquet, and that’s it,” Kasatkina said when this Friday night slugfest was over.
Kasatkina was thinking back to a moment, only a few minutes earlier, when it looked as if she was sure to lose this semifinal. She had been serving, down 4-5, 0-30, in the third set. She had just plunked the easiest of putaway backhands into the net. The near-capacity crowd at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, which had been firmly and loudly on their fellow American’s side all evening, let out its most thunderous roar of the night.
The 20-year-old was right; a year earlier, she may have imploded after that miss—any player might have imploded after that miss. This time Kasatkina kept her head, went back to what she was doing so well—using her heavy topspin forehand to run her 37-year-old opponent from corner to corner—and held serve. Ten minutes later, she held serve again for the match, and perhaps the most-hard fought win of her career.
That week in Indian Wells, Kasatkina beat Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Williams. While she would lose to Naomi Osaka, who was on her own torrid run, in the final, together they gave WTA fans a forecast of what was to come. Kasatkina would go on to make the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon, and Osaka would win the US Open.
“Matches like this, you’re just speechless,” Kasatkina said after beating Williams.
“Sometimes I was even smiling on the court,” she said. “Like, in one moment, you just catch, like, you’re in night session, all crowd, you’re playing against a legend, and you’re in the third set, for example. And you’re just staying on the return, and you’re like, ‘Come on, maybe it’s the moment of your life.’”
Equal parts shot-making and sprinting, offense and defense, with 31 break points, 13 service breaks and a game that went to eight deuces, this was a war from start to finish, and neither player could hold onto the momentum for more than two games at a time.
Like her idol, Rafael Nadal, Kasatkina rolled high topspin forehands crosscourt, then stepped forward and cracked them inside out and inside in. With her backhand, she drove the ball to either corner with equal ease, which forced Williams to sprint side to side. Kasatkina buzzed once-handed slices an inch over the net, which forced Williams to bend. As if that wasn’t enough, she threw in her subtle, drop shot at surprising times, which forced Williams to bolt forward. There are few players—Andy Murray comes to mind—who use a two-handed backhand, yet who can also hit a one-handed slice as naturally as Kasatkina does.
“As my coach said, she’s 37 years old, I am 20, so I should go for three sets and then, yeah...,” Kasatkina said with a smile when she was asked how she countered her more powerful opponent.
From 1-2 to 5-5 in the third, Kasatkina and Williams held firm and staved off all the break points they faced. Finally, Williams, who hit 49 winners and 63 unforced errors, and who appeared to be staggering through some lengthy rallies down the stretch, double faulted at break point at 5-5.
Until then, Venus looked as if she was going to find a way to win. That week she had beaten her sister, Serena, with a scintillating shot-making display, and against Kasatkina she had won the first set by patiently attacking and pushing her way forward. Venus was mostly brilliant at the net, but those 63 errors caught up to her. Unfortunately for Venus, this match was as much as a sign of things to come for her in 2018 as it was for Kasatkina. After finishing 2017 at No. 5, she would close this season at No. 38.
While the battle was physical for Williams in Indian Wells, it was mental for Kasatkina. She had lost to Venus 10-8 in the third set at Wimbledon two years earlier. At times her bravery wavered again; but as she said, she never lost her head. Instead, Kasatkina fought against the energy in the arena, and used it as motivation. Her biggest outburst wasn’t negative; it was the full-throttle fist-pump she let loose after she broke Williams’ serve for 4-3 in the second set. The fist-pump reversed the emotional current of the match, and perhaps Kasatkina’s season.
When it was over, Kasatkina dropped her racquet and covered her face. As with everything else about her, the reaction was genuine, and it betrayed a little bit of disbelief about what she had just pulled off. The victory—over a legendary opponent and her many fans—felt important. Rather than smashing the magic wand in her hands, she had gone to war with it.