Amid all the stress triggered by the global pandemic, Daria Kasatkina also found it beneficial. Ranked as high as number ten in the world at the end of 2018, a year later she’d plummeted to 69. The start of 2020 was miserable, Kasatkina losing five of her first six WTA main draw matches. When the pro circuit resumed, Kasatkina, like most of her peers, found bubble life stressful.

But, aided by considerable work during her months away from competition, the 24-year-old Russian has rebounded sharply. This year she’s won two WTA singles titles and seen her ranking rise back up to 31. Today, at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, California, the fourth-seeded Kasatkina advanced to the quarterfinals, taking two-and-a-half hours to subdue former world number four, Caroline Garcia, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.

It was a gritty victory. Versus a powerful opponent who’d won their only prior match, Kasatkina was twice down a service break in the second set and in the third trailed 3-1 before rattling off five straight games. It was also, as she explained to me in a exclusive interview, the kind of match she might not have won prior to reorganizing her game in 2020.

“It was tough times for sure,” she says of her pre-pandemic state of mind. “I lost the essence of my game. Mentally, I would break down. At one point, I was working on everything – on the tennis, on the physical, on the mental.”


Kasatkina never lost her composure despite losing the first set 6-3.

Kasatkina never lost her composure despite losing the first set 6-3.

Kasatkina credits her coach, Carlos Martinez, for helping finetune her approach to competing. The Kasatkina who first cracked the top ten was often divinely inspired, her game a free-wheeling medley of speeds, spins and drop shots.

“On a good day, it worked well,” she says, “but on a bad day, when those shots weren’t working, not so good. So I’m trying to be more focused and not give the points away for free.” Seemingly a tactical natural, the counter effort for Kasatkina at this stage of her pro career is an increased emphasis on the physical–and more work on her serve. “He’s pretty strict,” she says about Martinez. “We’re working on many things, especially the consistency. He’s also a very nice person. You spend 85 percent of the year with your team, so it’s important to have good people around.”

The twin challenges of frequent losses and the pandemic also greatly aided Kasatkina on the maturity front. “When you face adversity for the first time you feel it’s the end of the world,” she says. “But then you see it’s something every athlete goes through. It’s all part of learning. This is how I see it now. A while ago I was thinking differently and wanted to destroy everything.”

The creative dimension that’s part of Kasatkina also surfaces when asked what she’d be if not an athlete: a travel agent. Pandemic life has given her a figurative doctorate in such logistics as booking flights and hotels, clarifying the restrictions of various nations, and, quite complicated for a Russian, obtaining visas.

Kasatkina quarterfinal takes place on Friday versus 45th-ranked Magda Linette, upset winner today over sixth-seeded Petra Martic. Linette won their only previous match, beating Kasatkina 7-6 (4), 6-2 in the second round of the 2018 Australian Open.