Variety and smart strategy pay off for Daria Kasatkina in a compelling straight-sets defeat of US Open champion Sloane Stephens in the third round of the BNP Paribas Open.
Alex Macpherson
March 12, 2018

INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - No.20 seed Daria Kasatkina booked her place in the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open for the second time in three visits with a compelling 6-4, 6-3 dissection of No.13 seed Sloane Stephens in which the Russian's wide-ranging skillset was on full display.

Coming into Indian Wells, the 20-year-old had notched up the scalps of three of the four reigning Grand Slam champions over the past seven months: Jelena Ostapenko at the US Open, Caroline Wozniacki in St. Petersburg and Garbiñe Muguruza in Dubai. Her victory over Stephens today completed the set - and, for good measure, avenged defeat from match point up in their only previous meeting, won by the American 6-1, 5-7, 7-5 in Charleston in 2016.

A match-up between players with a variety of strategies at their disposal and who are proficient in both attack and defence, the first four games were cagy service holds, all to 30. It was a race to find a reliable range on the offensive forehand - the preferred baseline weapon of both, despite their contrasting techniques.

Whereas Stephens would often choose to strike suddenly with a flash of easy power, Kasatkina's approach was to dictate with a heavy spin and placement, yanking her opponent around the court by mixing up depth and direction. Both approaches had their risks, and there was a fine line throughout the match between the perfectly executed stroke and the mistimed shank.

It was the lower-ranked player who found her groove first. As the match progressed, Kasatkina began to work out which of the many shots in her arsenal were most effective against the US Open champion, and chief among them was the short backhand slice. In the fifth game, en route to the first break of the match, it set up a deft dropshot for the Dubai finalist; later, she would also use it to lure Stephens into the net, where she was mostly helpless against Kasatkina's passes and lobs.

Sitting at a career high ranking of No.19, Kasatkina is also becoming a razor-sharp scoreboard player, able to sense momentum and adapt her tactics accordingly. An exception was the wobble, manifest in a flurry of errors, that saw her pegged back from a dominant 5-2 double break lead in the first set to 5-4.

Aside from this, though, last year's Charleston champion was reliably dialed-in when it mattered, boasting a 100 per cent break point conversion rate as well as seizing both sets at the first time of asking. The first set was won with her most effective serve of the day, the slider out wide; the second, and match, with a stunning, low-percentage forehand pass.

Having calmed her nerves sufficiently to get the first set under her belt, Kasatkina wasted no time in pressing home her advantage to break in the first game of the second, once again dragging Stephens into net and firing a pass out of the American's reach. By contrast, the 24-year-old was increasingly liable to let her footwork lapse and consequently mistake-prone, racking up 38 unforced errors to just 14 winners today.

That opening break would prove crucial. Stephens would manage to tough out two marathon service holds in the third and seventh games of the second set, but by this point Kasatkina's command of her strategy was unshakeable.

Impressively, the 2014 Roland Garros girls' champion had saved her finest, most urgent tennis for the final two games of the match as she accelerated towards victory. Peaking on both defence and attack, Kasatkina confounded her opponent repeatedly with her skill in redirecting balls at full stretch - and then just a few points later, would dominate by hammering blistering forehand returns.

Stephens, too, would play some of her best rallies in the home stretch, buoyed by a pep talk from coach Kamau Murray - but with that final flourish of a pass, it was the younger player whose progress proved irresistible.

A quarterfinalist in Indian Wells on her first appearance in 2016, Kasatkina is yet to drop a set this year - and, in her fourth round against No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki, will be seeking to reprise her victory in the St. Petersburg quarterfinals in February over the Australian Open champion.