MIAMI, FL, USA - Daria Kasatkina will take on former World No.1 Venus Williams at the Miami Open for the fourth time on Sunday, and if it's anything like their first three matches, fans should expect another epic at the Hard Rock Stadium.
"Maybe another big match is coming," she mused after ending 15-year-old Cori Gauff's WTA main draw debut in straight sets on Friday. "We will see. We’ve only ever played three set matches. I remember every match. I’ll play her again in her country, so we’ll be on another big court. It’s great, I love it!"
The 21-year-old leads their head-to-head 2-1, winning their first encounter at the ASB Classic in 2016 - her first over a Top 10 player - and repeated the feat two years later to reach the biggest final of her career at the BNP Paribas Open.
"Everyone hits so hard that you’re just getting used to it. It’s tough to get used to her serve because it’s really good, but I have to."
The match-up is also an opportunity for Kasatkina to turn things around in a major way. Lacking the off-beat exuberance that has long been her signature, she put no spin on her start to the season after an important opening round win in Miami.
"I have no goals anymore because I messed up with all of the high expectations I had in my head."
Kasatkina ended last year ranked inside the Top 10 after winning a second career title at the Kremlin Cup. A successful partnership with coach Philippe Dehaes saw her reach back-to-back Grand Slam quarterfinals at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, ostensibly putting her in pole position to become the next youngster to break through in 2019.
"It was a little bit of a mental breakdown," Kasatkina explained of what happened next. "But I hope to correct this moment and that I’m the way up."
The Russian won just one WTA main draw match through her first six events, splitting with Dehaes just before the BNP Paribas Open, where she had finished runner-up to Naomi Osaka last spring.
"I’m alone!" she joked. "I’m have a rest from coaches, coaching myself. In some moments, it can be helpful, because since I’ve been young, someone was always next to me, telling me what to do, and I would follow their advice.
"Now I have to do everything on my own. My brother helps me, but he just feeds me balls in practice and supports me a lot. I’m searching for a new coach, but not really intensely."
Her return to the California Desert ended at the hands of a fast-rising Marketa Vondrousova, who went on to defeat former World No.1 Simona Halep en route to the quarterfinals.
"After I lost, I was a little bit sad, and I had one or two days off. After that, I started to work a lot for the Miami Open. I think the best way to correct the breakdowns is to work a lot."
Kasatkina first played Voundrousova two years ago at Roland Garros, where the then-teenaged Russian was unnerved to be up against someone a full two years younger than her. That experience likely helped her solve Gauff, a 15-year-old fresh off her first WTA win.
"I feel much better. I feel the ball on the racquet, and like my nervous system is on an ok level. I wasn’t getting mad after losing one point. There’s still so much to learn and work on to build my game, not from zero, but from a low level again. I think a lot of players go through this, so I’m not an exception."
One exception is the support she gets from brother Alex, a much-needed constant for an otherwise in-flux Kasatkina.
"Well, we’ve been together since...I was born! Since that moment, we’ve never been apart, and it’s nice because I always have someone I can really trust. He’s such an important part of my life and my tennis career. I’m happy that he’s next to me through such a tough moment."
Blinking her brown eyes, she hopes the toughest moments are over, and that the Miami Open's new setting will be the site of a new success.
"I’ve never played well in Miami before, so I don’t have pressure here. In Indian Wells, I always play well, so coming there I felt like I had to do something. Here, I’ve maybe won one match in four years. They changed the courts, and I like that pretty good! I’m happy to finally have my best result in Miami."