Venus Williams and Daria Kasatkina, semifinal opponents at the BNP Paribas Open on Friday, have a tennis history that includes an 18-game third set in the third round of Wimbledon two years ago, which was suspended by rain on match point.
Venus eventually won that match, but if you’re talking real history, Kasatkina isn’t capable of catching up. That’s because when Venus was making her Indian Wells debut, her “first breakthrough tournament,” in her own words, at age 16, Kasatkina was a year short of birth.
It’s against that backdrop that the women’s semifinals, which includes Friday’s nightcap of Simona Halep versus Naomi Osaka, offers something for everyone with the No. 1 player in the game, tennis royalty and a pair of 20-year-olds that have many predicting future greatness.
“We could end up with a really memorable couple days,” said ESPN’s Pam Shriver.
Kasatkina, who like Williams has not dropped a set in Indian Wells, had a modest wish and a promise for the semis.
“I just want to be on the center court, primetime, in the evening,” said the young Russian. “Something special is coming from here, from the heart.”
These semis are nothing if not heart with the emotional Halep fighting off bouts of potentially self-defeating frustration; Venus embracing a place she stayed away from for 15 years and finding a game over the last year good enough to reach the title matches of the two Grand Slams and the WTA Finals; and the youngsters gaining legions of fans with exciting, imaginative games that make it a lot easier to envision the future of the sport after Venus and Serena retire.
Kasatkina and Osaka, the youngest semifinalists since Victoria Azarenka at 19, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at 17 in the 2009 BNP Paribas Open, are seemingly undaunted by any perceived pressure.
Kasatkina has yet to drop a set here and Osaka lost just one, 5-7 in the Round of 16 against Maria Sakkari, but rebounded with a 6-1 third set for the win.
Osaka, whip-quick in racquet and quote, has a laid-back vibe but a style as colorful as her clothes. The daughter of a Japanese mom and Haitian dad, a fan of computer games and Netflix, she has made it to the third round of five Grand Slam tournaments over the last two years and is the first Japanese woman to reach the semis of a WTA Premier Mandatory tournament.
“Oh, cool, OK,” she said upon hearing that news. “I mean, I’m happy, but also I feel like it’s cooler to go to the final and win it, so I’m going to try to do that.”
Kasatkina, with her jump backhands, kick serve and crazy topspin, has gained fame in large part for defeating all four reigning Grand Slam champions in the last year (including Caroline Wozniacki twice and No. 1 Halep last fall in Wuhan, China) and for beating three Top-15 players in Indian Wells alone. But she is also one of five players in WTA history to have multiple wins over world No. 1’s before their 21st birthday and has been ranked in the Top 100 since 2014 and Top 30 since 2016.
“She already is a few years on tour and she already has had a few good wins on her belt, so that gives her, of course, much more confidence,” said , fresh off Kasatkina’s 6-0, 6-2 quarterfinal pasting in 58 minutes and dismissing any notion that the young Russian is a “kid.”
Kasatkina, waxing poetic about her favorite soccer player (Lionel Messi), her favorite city (Barcelona, which not so coincidentally boasts her favorite soccer player) and her favorite food (Spanish), wants us to know that she considers her recent dismantling of champions to be as cool as we do.
“Of course, it was not easy,” she said. “They are the best players in the world, winning Grand Slams. Maybe from the side or with the score, it looks like it was simple but, of course, it wasn’t. I was preparing for the match. And during the match, I was really focused, and I knew that in one moment if I will lose focus just for a second, they will come back and then the big battle, five hours again, will start.”
Any notions of celebrity for a young woman who Shriver predicts by year’s end will possess the best forehand in women’s tennis, is also quickly set aside.
“I don’t want people to think that I’m somebody really special, because I’m just a normal human who loves football, who loves good food,” Kasatkina said. “I’m just somebody who also plays tennis.”
When she plays Venus Friday night, however, it can’t help but be special as the oldest women in the draw at 37, attempts to reach her first final in a seven-year tournament history that began in 1998.
“Experience is a good thing, too. It’s not just about the young legs,” said none other than Roger Federer. “You have to put the ball in the right place and run more, and eventually maybe they do get tired…There’s always going to be up-and-coming players. Some are better than others. Same with the older players. I’m just happy that I’m able to keep up a good level. Same for Venus. I’m really happy for her that she’s really consistently easily making all these semis and finals and winning tournaments. It’s great.”
Great for Venus, great for tennis fans. Halep, too, hopes to put her 26 years of life and eight years of main draw pro tennis to the best use. Her introspective ways as she navigates the No. 1 ranking while trying to pursue a first Grand Slam title has everyone but those across the net rooting for her. How can you not like a player who talks about “panicking” in the wind, calls her coach down in the quarters “to calm me down” and shares her never-ending analysis of perfection (“Why am I thinking about it even though I know it doesn’t exist?”)?
“I have to just put the thoughts in the right place,” said Halep.
The tennis, it appears for these special women’s semifinals, will take care of itself.