Daria Kasatkina def. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova
Highlights from the first round match of Anna Karolina Schmedlova vs Daria Kasatkina at the Australian Open 2018.
AO19 Ones to Watch: Daria Kasatkina
Watching Daria Kasatkina play tennis feels like a guilty pleasure - entirely too much fun. “She flows around the court,” observed Chris Evert at Wimbledon. “We’re seeing a breath of fresh air, we’re seeing a star.”
With fluid, exquisite timing, the 21-year-old Russian sends the ball gliding around the court. Jumping backhand, delicate slice, tweeners, back-to-the-net lunge winners - all looks inspired and unrehearsed.
“It’s just happening,” Kasatkina says of selecting the right shot from her dizzying array of options. “We don’t have much time to think. The ball is coming too fast. Just in the moment of the hit, you go, ‘OK, I’m going cross court or backhand to there.’ Only when the lob is coming, you can think about it. But 99% [of the time] you don’t think.”
Kasatkina’s engaging style has won a slavish following, with former greats among her fans.
“She’s athletic, competitive and feisty,” said Martina Navratilova a year ago, tipping a breakout year in 2018 for the 170cm all-court stylist. Added Evert: “I like her because she’s fearless. She goes after it, she’s not afraid to win. She knows how to close matches.”
In the wake of her 2018 season, the cult of Kasatkina looks set to go mainstream. The new No.1 Russian won the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, was a sensational finalist in Dubai and Indian Wells, made her first major quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon and rose from No.24 to a career-peak No.10.
“It’s the best season of my career so far, so of course I’m happy,” Kasatkina said at her last event for 2018 in Zhuhai. “It’s everything about hard work and patience. I didn’t have a really big step. I was going slowly, further and further. My team knows how much we sacrifice together. I hope we will not stop at this point, and [will] get more success.”
Kasatkina won seven of 13 clashes against the top 10 in 2018 and went 16-8 in three-setters. Perhaps most telling, the creative playmaker also proved herself a gritty fighter. In Dubai, she saved two match points against No.12 Johanna Konta and another three against No.3 Garbine Muguruza in a pulsating semi that was contender for match-of-the-year.
In her next event at Indian Wells, she toppled four Grand Slam champions - Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams - before bowing to fellow rising star Naomi Osaka in the final.
In contrast, Kasatkina’s Moscow title win came against sub top-20 opposition, although it hardly lacked drama. Qualifier Ons Jabeur, playing her eighth match in as many days, jumped out to a 6-2 4-1 lead in the final before cramps tearily ended her dream of being the first Tunisian to win a pro title.
Kasatkina, runner-up on the same court in 2017, had gracious words for her vanquished opponent, ranked No.101. “I saw you gave everything today and this is what sport is about.”
The 2014 French Open junior champion, Kasatkina scored her third win over Wozniacki in four months to make the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, and at Wimbledon the Russian came back from 1-4 to defeat Ash Barty in straights en route to the last eight.
Along the way, she also explained the origin of her trademark tweener. “It’s not coming just from nowhere,” she said. As a 12-year-old, Kasatkina practised the shot in an empty room of the family house in Tolyatti. “Every day, two hours per day, I come to this room, lobbing myself, playing tweener, lobbing myself, playing tweener. One-and-a-half, two hours every day. Yeah, sometimes I’m weird.”
Kasatkina’s younger contemporaries have beaten her to Grand Slam honours: Jelena Ostapenko memorably won Roland Garros 2017 in a swing-from-the-heels comeback against Simona Halep; Osaka, ranked 44 when she defeated Kasatkina for the Indian Wells title, stormed through US Open 2018 for just her second pro title.
The Russian’s all-court style has arguably taken longer to mature, but she has everything it takes to join her fellow 21-year-olds as a major winner.
Her motivation for 2019? “All the finals I lose,” she said bluntly (she’s 2-4 in career deciders). “I had good results but also, I mean, there’s 100 more things to improve. And this is the situation always. Just to be better. Even if I play a good match, almost perfect match, I’m always looking at the ‘almost’.”
After reaching the third round on debut in 2016 and the second round this year, Kasatkina has an open court before her, with a lot of improvement to come. Fans can enjoy an appealing talent at the beginning of her journey to possible greatness.