“One year ago, I would have broken the racquet, and that’s it,” Daria Kasatkina said after her exhilarating, exhausting, 168-minute, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win over Venus Williams in Indian Wells on Friday night.

Kasatkina was thinking back to a moment, only a few minutes earlier, when it looked as if she was certain to lose this classic semifinal. She had been serving down 4-5 in the third, 0-30, two points from defeat. She had finished the previous rally by bunting the easiest of putaway backhands into the net. The near-capacity crowd, which had been firmly and noisily on Williams’ side, let out its loudest roar of the night. Kasatkina was right; a year ago, as a sometimes-volatile teenager, the Russian may have imploded. Most players of any age would have imploded. But this time, Kasatkina kept her head, went back to what she had being doing so well—working her heavy topspin forehand into the corners—and held serve. Ten minutes later, she held serve again for the match.

With that, the 20-year-old, who has won just one title, reached her first Premier Mandatory final; beat her third Top 10 opponent of the week, after Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber; made herself known to a national-TV audience in the U.S.; and made herself a contender at the French Open, which is played on her favorite surface, clay. Indian Wells isn’t played on that surface, of course, but its hard courts are about as close an approximation as you can find in Southern California. Against Williams, they allowed Kasatkina to employ her versatility to its fullest extent.

Like her idol, Rafael Nadal, she rolled high topspin forehands crosscourt, then stepped forward and cracked them inside out and inside in. Kasatkina played with the same variety on her backhand side. She drove her two-hander crosscourt and down the line, which forced Williams to run side to side; she buzzed one-handed slices an inch over the net, which forced Williams to bend; and she slid the subtlest and lowest of drop shots short in the court, which forced Williams to sprint 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.

Match point from Kasatkina vs. Williams:


Equal parts shot-making and sprinting, equal parts offense and defense, with one game that went to eight deuces, the match was a war from start to finish, and neither player could hold on to the momentum for more than two games at a time. Together, Kasatkina and Williams earned 31 break points, and converted 13 of them. But from 1-2 to 5-5 in the third, when the match hung in the balance, the two of them held firm and staved off 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 another way to win in Indian Wells. On Tuesday, she had beaten her sister, Serena, with a scintillating shot-making display. On Wednesday, she had beaten Anastasija Sevastova by tempering her aggression. And against Kasatkina, she had won the first set by patiently attacking and pushing her way forward. Venus was mostly brilliant at the net; she had to be against a seemingly tireless defender who is 17 years her junior. Last season, Venus won her share of three-setters, and she fought as stubbornly as ever in this one. But those 63 errors—many of them into the net, which she particularly disdains—caught up to her in the end.

While the battle was physical for Williams, it was mental for Kasatkina. She had lost to Venus 10-8 in the third set at Wimbledon two years ago, and now she faced her on Williams’ home soil. At times Kasatkina’s bravery wavered; she played a loose and rushed game at 4-5 in the first set, and she gave away a lead early in the second. But as she said, she never lost her head. Instead, she fought back against the energy in the arena, and used it as motivation. This time her biggest outburst wasn’t negative; it was the full-throttle fist-pump that she let loose after Williams breaking serve near the end of the first set.

When the match 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 for Kasatkina. We know she can do anything she wants with a racquet; now, more than ever before, we know she can fight with it, too.

Kasatkina proves she's a fighter in semifinal win over Venus

Kasatkina proves she's a fighter in semifinal win over Venus

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