It was a Sunday night in Charleston. Four hours had elapsed since Daria Kasatkina had just won her first WTA singles title, the Volvo Car Open. Now she was on the corner of East Bay and Longitude, in an area off the Charleston Harbor known as the High Battery. As assorted media trailed Kasatkina to the water and across several blocks – photographers, video crews, social media, WTA handlers – she posed with the trophy for the requisite post-event photo opp. The trophy was held, kissed, shared, hoisted; even, in an homage to Kasatkina’s tennis hero, Rafael Nadal, bitten.
Since the High Battery was once a defensive seawall, Kasatkina’s victims this week might consider it a fitting venue for this 19-year-old Russian to mark her victory. Said the woman she’d beaten in the finals, Jelena Ostapenko, “I don't think she could like be more aggressive than me, so she was trying to play defensive to change the rhythm.” A similar assessment had come the day before from Kasatakina’s semifinal opponent, Laura Siegemund: “she just started giving me no pace at all.”
But the notion of Kasatkina as a purely defensive player is incredibly inaccurate. Hers is a connoisseur’s game. After splitting the first four games against Ostapenko, Kasatkina stepped it up – not with overt power, but with an increasingly eclectic mix of height, spin, depth and pace. Her use of a sleek slice backhand began to erode the nervous Ostapenko’s contact point. Kasatkina’s accuracy with her two-handed backhand and forehand also pushed Ostapenko into awkward spots and methodically coaxed errors. From 2-2 in the first, Kasatkina won ten of the next twelve games, winning the match 6-3, 6-1 in just over 65 minutes.
In large part, Ostapenko – herself an impressive power player who’s struck 40 winners in her quarterfinal win over 2011 Charleston champion Caroline Wozniacki -- had no idea what hit her. Like Siegemund, she will likely attribute the defeat to fatigue and a long week of arduous tennis; just a bad day at the office. Many a recreational player knows that exact feeling. How can I lose to this guy?
But a deeper look might pay bigger dividends. Said Kasatkina about the way she developed her playing style, “Because I was traveling all over with my brother, so I had to really think on my own, and I was just playing with the brain. Because I didn't have so much power, I was running, trying to spin the ball, move the opponent, and that's it. I didn't have so good fitness. So yeah, I was trying to beat the opponents only with the brain work.”
Kasatkina’s historical ancestors include such court-savvy maestros as Mats Wilander, Martina Hingis and, to a lesser degree, Agnieszka Radwanska – players who rarely overhit the ball, can see the progression of a point several shots ahead and do what it takes to turn the opponent into an accomplice in her own demise. But my feeling is that Kasatkina has much better technique than Radwanska. If perhaps at 19, Kasatkina likely needs to acquire more physical strength, her fundamentals are superb – simple swings, disciplined footwork, all fueling the exceptional court sense that adds up to a nicely textured game. It will be fascinating to see how both Kasatkina and Ostapenko progress throughout 2017 and beyond.