More than two years had passed since Daria Kasatkina's last held a winner's trophy. That drought ended Friday with a 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 win against No.13 seed Marie Bouzkova at the Phillip Island Trophy. Afterward, Kasatkina was overcome with emotion.
"Feels incredible to be honest," she said. "I felt like one big backpack with stones got out from my shoulders."
Kasatkina struck 35 winners to 25 unforced errors in the 1-hour, 55-minute match. Bouzkova, who had needed more than three hours to win her semifinal against No.2 seed Bianca Andreescu the previous day, called for the trainer midway through the second set and her energy levels decreased as the match drew on.
Kasatkina, the World No.75, took advantage, moving Bouzkova from side to side with heavy topspin to take control of rallies. Bouzkova, 22, failed to win a title in her second attempt in a final. Last year, she fell to Elina Svitolina in Monterrey. The World No.50 could only watch as Kasatkina found the open court - including a knifed backhand slice winner on championship point.
It had been a long time coming for the 23-year-old.
Kasatkina's last title, at home in Moscow in 2018, appeared to be a stepping stone. That was the year she had also reached her first two Grand Slam quarterfinals, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, as well as finals in Dubai and Indian Wells. Along the way, Kasatkina had delighted crowds with her creative brand of tennis, and the Moscow victory had put her into the Top 10 for the first time.
But a four-match losing streak at the start of 2019 sent Kasatkina into a downward spiral. Throughout what she would later call a "disaster" of a season, her confidence in her game drained. A 13-21 record sent her year-end ranking down to World No.69.
"I was struggling with a lot of things," Kasatkina admitted. "With my game. Mentally I was having problems, like I was not confident in myself. I was losing matches and everything was just going like a snowball all together. ... Things were just going down. It took a lot of time to rebuild my game, to rebuild my confidence, to change myself. Finally I'm feeling good."
Amid the pandemic, there were signs Kasatkina was beginning to rebuild her game. A semifinal in Lyon just before the Covid-19 shutdown was her first since 2018. On resumption, she put together a strong run in Rome, where an unfortunate ankle injury against Victoria Azarenka halted that match. Kasatkina would open up afterward about Azarenka's own 2020 resurgence providing inspiration.
Kasatkina's win-loss record since Rome has been a healthy 18-6. Her revitalization has been evident not only in her results but her panache on court as well. This week, key elements of Kasatkina's offensive game, such as her jumping backhand and off forehand, have been more evident than in some time. Her serve, too, has seen a dramatic improvement. She struck 10 aces against Danielle Collins in the semifinal and four on Friday against Bouzkova.
Kasatkina ascribed her turnaround to working with a sports psychologist over the past year - a decision she would recommend to younger players.
"The main thing I learned was that your confidence shouldn't depend on your results," she said. "It doesn't matter if you win or lose, it doesn't have to break your inner child. To lose one match doesn't have to kill yourself from the inside.
"Tennis is a very competitive sport - it's very difficult because basically you're alone, it's not a team sport. I think kids can also start work with a psychologist from a young age. It will help them for sure not to face the big problems when they're 18 or 20."
The doubles final saw India's Ankita Raina and Russia's Kamilla Rakhimova both capture their maiden WTA title with a 2-6, 6-4, [10-7] defeat of Anna Blinkova and Anastasia Potapova in an all-unseeded affair. Raina and Rakhimova had both been part of the lucky loser cohort brought to Australia after losing in the third round of Australian Open qualifying in Dubai.
Neither would make it into the main draw, but the pair were overjoyed to score this milestone instead after reeling off the last five points of the match tiebreak. "It was a funny one how we ended up together," said Raina to her scratch partner during the trophy ceremony. "But I'm so proud of us - and your fighting spirit is great!"
Raina becomes just the second Indian woman following former doubles World No.1 Sania Mirza to win a WTA title.