Friday, March 16, 2018 - Daria Kasatkina plays Venus Williams in the Semifinal of the BNP Paribas Open in Stadium 1 at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
The winner, after it was over, was anyone who got to witness it. But before then, after two-and-a-half hours and two-and-a-half sets of the most scintillating tennis any fan of the game could hope for Friday night, it was anyone’s guess.
Would it be the 37-year-old legend, bearing down and gutting out the final games in a contest she seemed to be finally dictating? Or the 20-year-old rising star, she of the jump backhand, the power forehand and deft touch?
Would it come down to fatigue as the legend Venus Williams devoured a banana and covered herself with towels on those final changeovers? Or would it be guile, as the kid seemed not to get it when, down 4-5, 0-15, she was far too casual on a netted drop try, putting Williams two points from the BNP Paribas Open final.
“She just played a little better at the end,” Williams would say. “It was really pretty much that simple.”
Williams played two bad points, Kasatkina won the next four and 12 of the final 13 to close out a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 victory and continue her recent dominance over the greats in the game.
All the No. 20 seed did in Indian Wells this past week was dismiss No. 13 Sloane Stephens, No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 10 Angelique Kerber en route to eliminating No. 8 Williams. This in a last year in which she knocked off each of the four reigning Grand Slam champions.
And now, the drama continues with a Sunday final that pits a pair of gifted 20-year-olds with Kasatkina facing the unseeded Naomi Osaka, who advanced in a shocking 6-3, 6-0, 64-minute whitewash of world No. 1 Simona Halep.
Claiming she was “stressed out” despite the final score, the playful Osaka recounted on court after her best career result that Kasatkina had taught her how to perform a ‘tweener — a shot between her legs — guaranteeing, if nothing else, that Sunday will be a revelation in more ways than one.
Kasatkina was equally giggly as she recounted the conference with her coach, Philippe Dehaes, after dropping the first set, relying more on finesse than power.
“I have good news,” Dehaes told 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.”
It was with that spirit that Kasatkina proceeded, but when Williams broke to knot the second set at three games all, she seemed to solve the young Russian, dictating points with her serve and volley as Kasatkina faltered on big points.
On the ESPN broadcast, Patrick McEnroe predicted Venus would close it out and it certainly was a reasonable prediction for a player who had won 13 sets in a row dating back to Fed Cup. But a 13-minute, 22-point game in which Kasatkina fended off five break points to take a 5-3 lead, changed the momentum once again. And when Williams retreated back to the baseline and the match went to a final set, the question shifted to whether fatigue would become a factor for the seven-time Grand Slam champion and the oldest player in the draw.
At 6-4, 4-6, 2-all, 15-all, Chris Evert remarked that it couldn’t get any closer and she wasn’t just speaking of the score. Williams held serve on a 16-point game at 3-2, and up 5-4, 30-0, “V” words like “Vintage” and “Valiant” were being trotted out by headline writers.
Ultimately, the tide turned because Williams’ serve was not as strong as it had been throughout the tournament, because she was broken seven times, because it was the closest a tennis match could be and then it wasn’t as she faded at the end.
And if there was any question as to how Williams felt in trying to pursue her first title at a tournament in which she made her pro breakthrough, left for 15 years, then returned to embrace the place, she made it pretty clear.
“I pretty much come to win tournaments, so if I don’t win, I’m not happy,” she said tersely. “I’m not here for results and all that stuff. You don’t get used to losses, ever. Anyone who gets used to losses should give up on life.”
On the flip side, Kasatkina called it an “amazing match,” considering how it was another drop shot, this time from the baseline, that fell over for a winner at 5-all and propelled her the rest of the way.
“Somehow it just happens,” Kasatkina said. “I don’t really think about it, especially when it’s 5-all in the third set. You just feel it and you do it. It was by instinct, for sure.
“[A] match like this, you’re just speechless” she said. “Even [when] I meet my coach and my brother after the match, I was not able to say anything. I was just, like, ‘Aaaaah, okay, that was pretty nice.’”