HIGHLIGHTS: Kasatkina impresses vs. Mertens

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Daria Kasatkina has once again advanced to the final of a WTA tournament in California—but on this occasion, during a very different time in her life. Three years ago, she made it that far at Indian Wells, beating four Grand Slam champions before losing to Naomi Osaka.

Today, in the semis of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic in San Jose, Kasatkina played artful and nimble tennis to eliminate top seed Elise Mertens, 6-3, 6-2. Over the course of 81 minutes, the fourth-seeded Kasatkina struck 22 winners and only 11 unforced errors, accomplishing the 2:1 ratio that usually signifies high-quality tennis. Kasatkina also served exquisitely. She got in 77 percent of her first serves, fought off the one break point she faced and hit five aces.

A notable difference came in the forehand department. Kasatkina’s ability to shape, curve, and direct the ball off that side repeatedly helped her open up the court far more than the flatter-hitting, linear Mertens. Topspin off that wing, coupled with Kasatkina’s exceptional court sense, also helped her keep many points alive.

As the first set wore on, it was clear that Kasatkina was the one dictating the tempo of one rally after another, aided often by the margin afforded by her groundstrokes. Meanwhle, Mertens was locked in. “It was difficult to find a solution,” she said. Serving at 3-4, Mertens netted a backhand and a forehand on the first two points. At 30-40, reacting to an awkward Kasatkina service return, Mertens lined another backhand into the net.

Kasatkina began the year outside the Top 70, but will be back inside the Top 30 come Monday.

Kasatkina began the year outside the Top 70, but will be back inside the Top 30 come Monday.

It’s one thing to hit flat. It’s another to be flat. “My energy was a bit lower than the previous days,” said Mertens. But credit Kasatkina for taking Mertens out of the groove she so favors. “She kind of hit all the spots today,” said Mertens.

The second set revealed grit from both players. Mertens fought off four break points in the opening game and another four at 1-all. Here is where Kasatkina showed improved resilience. Back in 2018, she was a prodigy, soaring up the ranks, finishing that year ranked ten in the world. But over the course of the next two years, Kasatkina struggled with everything from grappling with the pressures of competition to a change in coaches. By the end of 2020, she was ranked 71. Said Kasatkina, “I put too much pressure on myself after the successful 2018 season. I was expecting too much from myself.” She’s turned it around nicely in ’21, winning two titles on the way to a current ranking of 31.

The Kasatkina of that tough period might have been demoralized after seeing eight break points evaporate. Today, she persevered. At 2-2, 15-40, Mertens again drove a backhand into the net. From there on, Kasatkina maintained pinpoint accuracy, earning the double-break by running down a drop shot and rolling a crosscourt backhand winner. Up 5-2, 30-15, the 24-year-old Russian closed out the match with two straight aces.

Asked to compare and contrast this California run with the BNP Paribas Open effort three years ago, Kasatkina cited a shift in attitude. During Indian Wells, said Kasatkina, “I was in a different mental stage. I was super happy and super excited. Now I’m a bit more calm.” In a year of shifting schedules and the ongoing stress of the pandemic, the renaissance of the tactically eclectic Kasatkina is one of 2021’s most pleasing story lines.