The Case for Daria Kasatkina, by David Kane.
As rumors of a Spice Girls comeback hit a fever pitch, Generation 1997 is spicing up everyone's life at the BNP Paribas Open. 20-year-olds and 'tweener colleagues Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka will face off at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden for the biggest title of their young careers; for Kasatkina, it would also mean a Top 10 debut, having already become the top-ranked Russian earlier in the fortnight.
Kasatkina’s run is a reminder to keep an eye on the Middle East Swing, where she first gained steam at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Earning a reputation there as the tour’s resident marathon woman, she pulled off thrilling three-set wins over Johanna Konta and Garbiñe Muguruza – with a victory over “tennis mama” and 2017 Indian Wells winner Elena Vesnina in between – en route to the final, falling to defending champion Elina Svitolina and making her Top 20 debut.
She relied on that experience deep in the third set against former World No.1 and seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in Friday night’s semifinal. Relishing the Stadium 1 spotlight, the Russian recovered from a break down in the final set to claim another three-hour epic, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 - losing just four points in the final three games.
“I was missing these feelings after Dubai. I didn't play three-set matches here,” she said after the match.
“I think from the side the match looked pretty good. From my side, it was tough, but I think for spectators it was nice to watch.”
To that point, Kasatkina had been far more efficient in Indian Wells, nabbing three quality wins over US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, and two-time major champion Angelique Kerber – all in straight sets. Expectation may have been building from the outside, but not within her team, led by new coach Philippe Dehaes.
“You don't have to expect these things, because you never know when it's going to happen," Kasatkina said. "You can be prepared, like, 100% for the one tournament, and you can lose first round because the opponent was unbelievable.
“I was not trying to put something like this on my shoulders. I was just playing, practicing, and it comes. You have to give time to yourself.”
Kasatkina has taken that time to grow in confidence, to play by instinct, and to rely on her full arsenal of shots; her deft drop shot at 5-5 in the final set all but turned last night’s semifinal her way. Her ability to withstand Venus' stellar serving and ground game proved that, where her game lacks in power, it makes up in anticipation, precision, and a jumping backhand that defies the imagination.
Hers is also a game that requires clarity, something she achieves by staying in the moment – an easy task given her surroundings in Tennis Paradise.
“I was even smiling on the court. In one moment you just catch yourself, like, you're in the night session, full crowd, playing against a legend, and you are in the third set, for example. You're just staying on the return, like, ‘Come on, maybe it's the moment of your life.’
A win on Sunday would be a first step towards having that moment for life, but while Kasatkina believes the final against Osaka means, “We’re coming, very soon,” one could argue that regardless of result, the Russian has already arrived.
The Case for Naomi Osaka, by Courtney Nguyen
Naomi Osaka has been a name to watch ever since she announced her arrival in her very first WTA main draw match, which saw the then 16-year-old blast past Sam Stosur to win 4-6, 7-6(7), 7-5 in the first round of the 2014 Bank of the West Classic. All the milestones signifying a future force on tour came quickly. She made her first Slam main draw in 2016 and proceeded to make the third round in her first three majors, and six of the 8 Slam main draws she's played in her career. When it comes to bringing her best when the moment mattered, Osaka has already shown she's talented beyond her years. When the moment demands it, she steps up.
That big-match instinct came through in a big way in Indian Wells. She drew the unenviable task of playing Maria Sharapova in the first round. Osaka played a mature and composed match to win 6-4, 6-4. Then came another former Top 5 player in Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round. Osaka rolled to a 6-3, 6-2 win. It's been much of the same her run-up to the biggest final of her career, tallying back-to-back Top 5 wins in straight sets over Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals and No.1 Simona Halep in the semifinals.
"For me, I find it easier to play against the bigger players just because you know you have to constantly keep up the concentration and you can't really afford to lose points. I'm glad I was able to play them, and I'm glad I was able to play two night matches on center. So I feel like it did jump-start me quite fast."
That jump-start led to a career-best run of form for the 20-year-old. For the first time in her career she has won six consecutive main-draw matches. She earned her first win over a World No.1 and is into just the second final of her career (l. Wozniacki, 2016 Tokyo final). She has done so by showing just how far her game has evolved over the last two years.
Already armed with instinctual, devastating strokes, Osaka has grown leaps and bounds in learning how to harness that power. She is less inclined to pull the trigger early and give away free points. Her hard work in the off-season has taught her she can stay in the rallies with the best, patiently waiting for a good opportunity to strike.
"I feel like this year I have been more consistent," Osaka said. I feel like all the matches I have played at the start of the year, sort of they have been leading up to this. And I just want to keep this level throughout the entire year, because that's what the good players do."
Kasatkina's run to the final has been incredible, beating four consecutive Slam champions to make her second straight final. But the Russian has yet to face the kind of power Osaka can consistently bring on her serve and forehand. Osaka on the other hand has looked strong against an array of gamestyles throughout the tournament. "I feel like it's going to be really interesting, because she kind of plays a completely different game than me, and I think 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."
At 20 years and 153 days, Osaka is the youngest Indian Wells finalist since Caroline Wozniacki (19 years, 253 days) finished R-Up in 2010. If she goes on to win her first career title on Sunday, she'll be the youngest Indian Wells champion since Ana Ivanovic in 2008 (20 years, 138 days). She would also be the lowest-ranked woman to ever win the title, becoming just the third unseeded Indian Wells champion. Who would have thought it would be another 20-year-old standing across the net.
"I feel like everyone sort of takes their paths different ways," Osaka said. "I feel like maybe I came out a little bit slower than she has, because she's obviously seeded in this tournament and stuff. But I feel like we ended up in the same place, and we're both going to try really hard.
"And, yeah, I feel like there is a new generation, and we're trying to push through."
Regardless of who wins Sunday's final, one thing has become crystal clear over this Californian fortnight: Generation Next is ready to throw down now.