MELBOURNE, Australia - Daria Kasatkina's 2016 has begun with a bang. The 18-year-old from Moscow opened her season by beating Venus Williams in her first match at the ASB Classic in Auckland, and Friday night she'll take on World No.1 Serena Williams on the biggest stage of her career on Rod Laver Arena. The shy teenager says it's a dream come true.
"When I was young, I was just dreaming to play against them, somewhere at the Grand Slams, and now I can do it," she told reporters after beating fellow teen Ana Konjuh in the second round. "So it's just great."
Fans may not be as familiar with Kasatkina, though it's time to study up. A 2014 junior French Open champion, Kasatkina watched as one of her friends and rivals, Belinda Bencic, left the junior ranks early with great success. While Kasatkina stayed back in 2014, Bencic - two months older than the Russian - made her Grand Slam debut here in Melbourne. By year's end she was a Grand Slam quarterfinalist at the US Open.
"We played against each other in the juniors and they were real battles," Kasatkina said of Bencic. "I was a little bit upset because she started to play earlier and she started to beat other players and showing results a little bit earlier than me.
"When she started to play pros, I was still playing juniors, and I was talking to my coaches, saying, 'I want to play pro, I want to start to play pros! Why am I still in juniors?' He said, 'Dasha, be cool.' I had to get some experience from juniors and that experience was great. A lot of experience and good memories, and I don't regret it."
Kasatkina made her major debut at the US Open last year as a lucky loser and proceeded to have a dream run to the third round, where she lost to Kristina Mladenovic. That run seemed to flip a switch within her. She went on to make the semifinals at the Kremlin Cup as a qualifier, losing in a tough three sets to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
"Those two tournaments brought me into the Top 100 and now I'm in main draws almost everywhere," she said. "It's a very good opportunity to play better because when you're a qualifier, you have to play more matches. When you're in the main draw, you're more confident."
Now ranked No.69 and rising, Kasatkina is one of four teenagers into the third round at the Australian Open, joining a group that includes Bencic, Japan's Naomi Osaka, and her best friend Elizaveta Kulichkova. It's the first time four teenagers have progressed to the third round at the Australian Open since 2009, when Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka, Dominika Cibulkova, Alizé Cornet, and Alisa Kleybanova moved en masse.
Kasatkina's coach, Vlado Platenik (who has worked with Dominika Cibulkova and former World No.3 Nadia Petrova) has preached patience and tranquility when it comes to her career. The results will come if you put in the work and there is no substitution for experience. "Dasha, be cool," he reminds her. It's a difficult lesson to learn.
"For me everything is new and I'm a little bit shy," she said. "But I'm learning at every tournament and from every match, getting experience, which will help me a lot."
There's no experience in tennis like playing Serena Williams on one of the biggest courts in the world. Kasatkina says she has no expectations, but she'll play the match as if it's her last.
"It's luck for me to play against such a great player like Serena, really, because honestly nobody plays forever, so it's great that I've had the opportunity to play against Venus this year and now also Serena," she told reporters. "I will just enjoy and try to show my best tennis. Nobody is unbeatable, so I will try."
Catch up with Daria Kasatkina in this exclusive WTA Insider Q&A.
WTA Insider: So what did you do during your off-season?
Kasatkina: Off-season? Hard work! For sure, it was two weeks off - I had fun, rest - and then I go with my fitness coach for 10 days in the mountains, hard work, only fitness. After, I went to Miami for preparation to play tennis. I think it helped. I feel like I'm Duracell!
WTA Insider: It's been a great week in Melbourne for young Russians. You, Kulichkova, and Margarita Gasparyan are all into the third round. Do you think we'll see you three at the top of the game in the next five years?
Kasatkina: Nobody plays forever. So we're the next generation so we have to play better and better. I think soon we will be on top. I have to be confident, otherwise it's impossible.
WTA Insider: Did you and your coach work on anything specific in the off-season? How are you trying to improve your game?
Kasatkina: You always have to change something; you cannot stay on one level, so for me, I'm trying to play more aggressively and go for volleys. My psychology is to be a little bit more defense, so I'm trying to be more offensive.
WTA Insider: Why do you think you have a more defensive psychology?
Kasatkina: Maybe because I'm not big enough to hit hard, and when I was a kid, I'd play smarter [rather] than just hitting the ball. But now I have to be more aggressive; otherwise, it's impossible.
? WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 20, 2016
WTA Insider: What are your goals this year?
Kasatkina: This is my first full year on the WTA so first, I want to adapt, because it's very difficult. Last year I played a lot of ITF tournaments, and just a few WTAs. I will play WTAs, and will adapt everything and will for sure enjoy my year on tour because, for me, when I was a kid it was my dream to be at the top, so now I'm just enjoying.
WTA Insider: How has the tour been for you so far? Are you finding it fun? Or is it a little bit lonely because you're fairly new.
Kasatkina: My team is always with me, so they help me a lot. They support me, and tell me what to do when I'm not sure. I'm a little bit shy because everything is new and I don't know so many of the players, but I think I'm getting better.
WTA Insider: Are you tight with the other young Russian players? Does that help?
Kasatkina: I know all of the Russians and there are a lot of the players older than me, and we know each other from the juniors. But now the new generation is coming and there are a lot of relationships I have.
WTA Insider: Do you help push each other?
Kasatkina: For sure, because even if we are friends we want to be better and better, so it's like a little competition but it doesn't show it in the relationship. On the court, we are players, but off we are friends.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.