Friday, March 16, 2018 - Press Conference with Daria Kasatkina at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Jared Wickerham/BNP Paribas Open)
The laughter was contagious, seemingly spreading from Daria Kasatkina to Naomi Osaka, but it was more than that, of course. Cutting through the tension of a top-level semifinal against a tennis great in mid-match, in the case of Kasatkina, and relieving the stress after an almost awkwardly easy victory over the top-ranked player in the world for Osaka, the 20-year-olds were, well, enjoying themselves on Friday night.
And so were we.
And now, with all the feel-good vibes of tennis camp and the anticipation of a new dawn breaking on the women’s game, Sunday’s BNP Paribas Open final is, aptly, also the first meeting between the two.
“I feel like it’s going to be really interesting, because she kind of plays a completely different game than me, and we’re both in the final of this type of tournament for the first time,” Osaka said. “So it’s going to be fun, I think.”
While it may be tempting to say Kasatkina and Osaka arrived at this point because they are two free-swinging youngsters playing with no pressure as many of their vanquished opponents suggested and outright said, that would be too easy.
Emerging from a talented pack of young players like Caroline Dolehide, Sachia Vickery, Amanda Anisimova, Danielle Collins and Maria Sakkari, all of whom advanced to the fourth round or better here, the Indian Wells finalists bring a certain fearlessness with high-power, highly athletic and crazy creative games that dismantled some of the best players in the game.
Kasatkina, the No. 20 seed who has mowed down seven Top-20 players this season, including No. 1 Halep last fall, and all four reigning Grand Slam champs over the last year, employed a little of everything in her victory over Venus Williams in the semifinals on Friday night.
In the one of the most tightly contested and best-played matches of the year, Kasatkina explored every part of her all-court game to wear down Williams, mixing pace and demonstrating exquisite touch from the net as well as the baseline.
And when her coach, Philippe Dehaes, huddled with Kasatkina after the first set, reminding her, “She’s 37 and you’re 20. Make her work. Make her work a lot. That’s it, I go back to my office. Enjoy,” Kasatkina laughed and then heeded his advice, winning the next two sets and the match.
Was the joy that she exhibited helpful? Sounds like it.
“Sometimes I was even smiling on the court,” she said. “Like in one moment, you just catch yourself. You’re in night session, all the crowd, you’re playing against a legend, and you are in the third set, for example, and you’re just staying on the return and you’re like, ‘Come on, maybe it’s the moment of your life.’ For sure you are enjoying these moments.”
Osaka is enjoying her best career result, the third Top-5 win of her career with her 6-3, 6-0 victory against Halep Friday night, and at No. 44, she is the lowest-ranked Indian Wells finalist since Kim Clijsters, who won the event in 2005.
Like Kasatkina, Osaka is powerful, almost deceptively so on her groundstrokes with her serve a potent weapon as well. And when she had the chance to close out a match against a disengaged Halep, she didn’t hesitate.
“I just really tried to be consistent,” she said. “I think in Australia [a match Halep won 6-3, 6-2 on hard courts in January], I just made way too many mistakes, and I sort of handed her the match. So I just tried to be a little bit annoying and return a lot.”
It is with her disarming charm, as well as her ability, that Osaka, who has dual -citizenship with Japan and the U.S., and lives and trains in Fort Lauderdale, has won over the crowds in the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
How does it feel to be in the final of a big tournament like this, she was asked?
“Well, it feels a little bit lonely, because there’s, like, nobody here,” she said. “As it goes on, there are less players and stuff. It’s kind of cool, but also a little bit, like, sad because then you’re not around the people that you talk to and stuff.
“But other than that, it’s cool because then, like, all the sushi. There is still a lot of sushi left.”
Asked about her humor, which is like demanding that someone be funny, Osaka flinched but not much.
“I’m not really sure because my parents aren’t very funny,” she said with a typically straight face of her Japanese mom and Haitian dad. “I think I just got it from the Internet…But, yeah, I kind of feel like me making these weird jokes is, like, a defense mechanism. I don’t know. I just say whatever to divert the attention.”
Kasatkina playfully mocked the Russian stereotype when she was asked where she got the “ice in her veins.
“From cold Russia,” she said. “We are always unhappy. [But] we are strong mentally.”
Kasatkina joked that Osaka was “bad” when she attempted to teach her the ‘tweener this week, but even through her smile, she was serious when asked what it would mean that two 20-year-olds are playing in a big final like Sunday’s is.
“That we are coming,” she said. “Very soon.”