NEW YORK, NY, USA - Daria Kasatkina knew the odds were stacked against her. The 18-year-old from Togliatty, Russia was trying to qualify for her first Grand Slam main draw last week. She notched two good wins over Maria Irgoyen and Taylor Townsend before losing to her friend and compatriot Elizaveta Kulichkova in the final round.
Then, late Sunday afternoon, she got word that her Slam debut was suddenly imminent. No.3 seed Maria Sharapova announced her withdrawal from the tournament and Kasatkina, ranked No.133, was into the main draw as a lucky loser, taking Sharapova's now vacated spot. In 24 hours she would be facing another young Russian, Daria Gavrilova, in the first round.
"When my coach told me 'Sharapova withdrew, you're in the main draw,' I was like... Oh my god! Thanks God!" Kasatkina said, laughing. "Really, I was so happy because it's unbelievable luck to get the lucky loser at a Grand Slam. So I realized I was so, so lucky."
Kasatkina hasn't looked back. She took the court and ousted one of the WTA's premier Rising Stars, beating Gavrilova, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5, and then followed it up with a 6-4, 6-4 win over fellow teenager Ana Konjuh on Wednesday. When told it was a big day in her nascent pro career, Kasatkina shrugged.
"Big day but not good enough," she said, before letting out a laugh. "Maybe I will be lucky again!
"Now it's something special because a few days ago I was out of the tournament. Now I am in the third round. I'm very happy. My team is happy. My mother called me today and she was almost crying. It was so nice."
She is one of a slew of Russian teenagers who are quietly making a name for themselves. Kasatkina won the 2014 French Open junior title. Kulichkova, 19, won the 2014 Australian Open junior title and qualified for the main draw here. Behind them is 15-year-old Sofia Zhuk, who won the Wimbledon junior title this year.
Currently playing in her first full WTA season, Kasatkina said the biggest challenge has been balancing the success with humility. "Because when you play the $10,000 ITFs and you win the $10,000 ITFs, you think you're good. You come to $25,000 ITFs and you lose and you analyze. You need to improve more. Again, and again from tournament to tournament. It's not so easy."
With recent history of Russian tennis talent like Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Elena Dementieva, it would easy to assume Kasatkina would look to them as idols. Not so. She has her eyes on only one player.
"I love to watch Rafael Nadal," Kasatkina said. "My favorite. Today I will go to watch him. He's unbelievable. A lot of people say he pushes the ball, but he never does. He hits full power with the spin. His character, he is a fighter. An unbelievable fighter."
The challenge now for Kasatkina is to find the balance between playing freely while playing with that Rafa-like tenacity. That lucky feeling can change thing for a player. The racquet swings freer, the pressure minimal. After all, you were never supposed to be here. For many players, it's the closest they come to literally having nothing to lose. It was the perfect scenario for Kasatkina.
"No pressure because it's my first professional Grand Slam, so no pressure," she said. "No pressure from my parents or my team, nothing. I played free. Especially now. I already reached the second round. I don't care."
"It's definitely different," Madison Keys said, of playing the lucky loser role. Keys got into the 2013 Madrid Open as a lucky loser and was doing her Algebra homework when she got word she had to get ready to play immediately. "I was just sitting there for hours, just wondering if I was ever going to get in, and then all of a sudden I got in, had five minutes to change, and then was on the court playing Li Na."
Keys won that match in straight sets, scoring one of the best wins of her career. "I think you play a lot looser just because you think that you're out and everything," Keys said. "I feel like you also don't usually have time to overthink anything."
Kasatkina will do her best to keep her thoughts at bay too. She will spend her off-day on Thursday practicing and preparing for her match against Kristina Mladenovic on Friday. The US Open has never been her favorite Slam - that would be the French Open, as clay is her favorite surface - but she's warming up to New York. "New York is special," she said. "When it's not too much, it's very good."
Fast Facts about Daria Kasatkina:
- She was introduced to tennis by her brother Alexsandr at six years old. He now travels with her as her physio.
- Since October 2014 she has trained at the Empire Tennis Academy in Trnava, Slovakia. Her coach is Vladimir Platenik, who formerly coached Dominika Cibulkova.
- Began the season ranked No.350 and made a rapid rise thanks to four ITF titles on clay.
? WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) September 2, 2015