ROME -- On a sunny balcony at the Foro Italico, Daria Kasatkina is engaged in a TV interview regarding her prospects at this week's Internazionali BNL d'Italia. Her girlfriend, Natalia Zabiiako, captures the moment with a compact handheld device, while a roaming cameraman focuses on Zabiiako with a larger lens. In the background, a reporter struggles to include all four individuals within the frame of a battered Android device.

This moment is an indication of the snowballing success of Zabiiako and Kasatkina's YouTube channel, rebranded this year as "What The Vlog." Launched just 18 months ago, it now has nearly 50,000 subscribers. Its most popular episode so far -- a freewheeling 1-hour, 25-minute look behind the scenes of the 2023 US Open -- has racked up 218,000 views and counting. Last June, declared the vlog put Netflix's much-hyped "Break Point" to shame.

What's the appeal? Why does everyone wants a piece of the Zabiiako and Kasatkina show instead? In a nutshell, it's because they keep it real.

Alex Macpherson

"What we are trying to show is everything exactly how it is," Kasatkina said after her TV spot. "'We're not trying to make everything look glamorous or to break our ass to make it look super-interesting if it's not. What we're doing is just to show how we live. To show people into the tennis kitchen."

Thus, we get sardonic, often-untranslatable jokes from Aryna Sabalenka, while Kasatkina and Jelena Ostapenko riff on their former hostilities. The vlog takes viewers wearily through endless rain delays, with headlines like "STUPIDEST MATCH IN CAREER."

If a player's dog is around, he or she will be fussed over accordingly. On the way to Friday's interview, in fact, Kasatkina is nearly diverted by Martina Trevisan's little poodle.

Zabiiako splices memes into her footage and provides a dry outsider's view of a tennis bubble she still describes as "strange." Every conversation somehow comes back to food. Kasatkina considers her own restaurant tips to be the best on tour, singles out Daria Saville's choices as "a disaster" but recognizes she may have met her match with the Italian squad in Rome.

"To talk to Italians about food is not something fun," she said wryly. "I had to be very serious."

The vlog has been serious on occasion, too. One of its most poignant moments came at the 2023 US Open. A visit to the Carl Schurz Small Dog Park in New York for a French bulldog meet-up led Kasatkina, who has not returned to her native Russia since coming out as a lesbian and voicing opposition to the war in Ukraine, to reflect: "So many dogs, different breeds, different nations, and they all love each other. No one infringes anyone. We have a lot to learn from dogs."

This dedication to casual authenticity stands in stark contrast to the polished, glossy imagery that typically dominates promotions in both tennis and Zabiiako's previous sport, ice skating. It reflects the essence of "What The Vlog's" do-it-yourself approach. The origin story of the project was a technical error -- Zabiiako accidentally deleted her old YouTube channel and had to start again -- and with no formal media training, the self-taught pair are happy to be winging it.

"We are learning while doing," Kasatkina said. "Platforms like YouTube give you a lot of freedom to do what you want and just see how it goes. You can experiment, you are independent."

An avowed cinephile whose favorite films are romances such as "Carol" and "Portrait Of A Lady On Fire," Zabiiako does the bulk of the work on the vlog: filming, editing, music, subtitles. 

At first, she simply used her phone to film. Even when she upgraded to the DJI Pocket, she still felt "strange" when comparing it to the furniture-sized camera and lighting equipment of the professional media. But the tiny, hand-held device allows for both a life-like feel to proceedings and for the pair to capture footage on a spontaneous basis. Zabiiako and Kasatkina have never gone into tournaments with an advance plan for the vlog.

"We are not going to call someone specific and arrange an interview," Kasatkina said. "We see someone in the players' restaurant, we go and sit with them. If she's OK to talk, then we do it."

These days, players come to them. "What The Vlog's" growth has been rapid but organic, and it's gained respect in the locker room as well as among fans.

Coco Gauff made her debut on the vlog at Indian Wells two months ago, a decision spurred by the US Open champion herself. Ostapenko, a regular on the vlog, says the project makes life on tour easier.

"Sometimes they come out of nowhere!" Ostapenko said after her second-round win in Rome. "When I don't expect them, they're right there. That's the fun part because you're not expecting an interview, you can be yourself. Sometimes they have serious questions but sometimes they're just, like ... opening the water in Madrid and Dasha says, 'Oh cheers, we're getting some beer.'

"You have to make jokes because it's not easy to be on tour and always be very serious. Sometimes you can get nuts being too serious. They make it a more relaxed atmosphere."

The feeling goes both ways. Zabiiako says the project helps Kasatkina relax: "During competitions she thinks a lot and it's really tough," she said. "It helps her take her mind off tennis."

It's also brought her closer to the rest of the tour. "What The Vlog" initially featured Kasatkina's closest friends, such as Saville and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, but its popularity means that she's become friendlier with more and more players. Some old rifts have even been healed. One of the players Zabiiako most wanted to feature at the start was Ostapenko.

"Dasha and her were not in a good relationship," Zabiiako said. "I was like, 'No, we need to do this.' I had to go to her to ask questions and I was so scared the first time."

A couple of appearances later and the old junior enmity had been forgotten. Kasatkina and Ostapenko have a natural rapport on camera, made sweeter by their references to the past.

"They were young and stupid," Zabiiako said. "Now they are mature."

For her part, Kasatkina plays down her skills as an interviewer. "Basically, I am just saying some rubbish on the camera and Natasha is doing everything else," she said. But the lightness is often a gateway to more -- and shows the tennis lifestyle and the players who live it at their most authentic.