“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: