INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA -- The stunning run by Daria Kasatkina at Indian Wells continues, as the 20-year-old No.20 seed survived a titanic tussle with 8th-seeded WTA superstar Venus Williams on Friday night, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, to advance to the biggest final of her career at the BNP Paribas Open after just under three hours of top-tier tennis.
"Match like this, you're just speechless," an overjoyed Kasatkina said during her post-match press conference. "Even [when] I meet my coach and my brother after the match, I was not able to say anything. I was just, like, 'Aaaaah, okay, that was pretty nice.' Too many emotions and you cannot explain everything."
"[Venus] was playing really good, honestly," the World No.19 continued. "It was really tough match, yeah. I must, like, give her respect, because she's playing amazing, really."
"The crowd were unbelievable," said Kasatkina. "And to play Venus Williams on center court in the United States, in the semifinals, one of the biggest tournaments, you just put your heart there, and that's it."
"Sometimes I was even smiling on the court," the Russian elaborated. "In one moment, you just catch yourself, like, you're in night session, all crowd, you're playing against a legend, and you are in the third set, for example. And you're just staying on the return, and you're like, 'Come on, maybe it's the moment of your life.' Yeah, for sure you are enjoying these moments."
The young Russian has now claimed four consecutive victories over current Top 20 players, all of whom are Grand Slam champions. Kasatkina ousted No.13 seed Sloane Stephens, No.2 seed Caroline Wozniacki, and No.10 seed Angelique Kerber before her massive semifinal victory over Williams.
Both women came into the semifinal battle in stellar form, with neither player having dropped a set. But it was Kasatkina who clinched her second win in three meetings with Williams, avenging a loss in their most recent match, a third-round tilt at Wimbledon in 2016 which the American won 10-8 in the final set.
Overall, it was Kasatkina who had the cleaner sheet on the evening, with 33 winners to 35 unforced errors, while Williams had 63 unforced errors to outweigh her 49 winners. Kasatkina also won a greater percentage of points than Williams did on both first and second serve, which combined to give the Russian a paper-thin victory.
Kasatkina, who won her first title at the Volvo Car Open in Charleston last year, therefore enters her first Premier Mandatory final in Indian Wells. She will take on another 20-year-old sensation, Naomi Osaka of Japan, who shocked World No.1 Simona Halep of Romania in the second semifinal, 6-3, 6-0.
Kasatkina told the press that Osaka is "playing really well. She's hitting hard. She has a good serve. She's improving so much, so she's really dangerous player."
Kasatkina kicked off the match in fine form, breaking an error-prone Williams in the opening game. Williams broke back in the next game, but Kasatkina hit a patch of dominance with her heavy top-spin forehand to slide to a 3-1 lead.
Williams, however, inexorably got her teeth into the set, taking advantage of the times when the spin on Kasatkina’s shots caused them to fall short in the court. Williams used these possibilities to move forward as much as she could, and this tactic paid off, edging back to 3-3.
Kasatkina continued to hang with the amped-up aggression from the American, using her speed to track down and return powerful forehands or overheads from Williams, often forcing the No.8 seed into extended rallies. But Williams was up to the task, running off four straight games en route to breaking the Russian for a 5-3 lead after a nearly seven-minute game.
Kasatkina got back on serve in the next game, using a deft drop shot to reach break point, which she converted. But Williams took the first set after Kasatkina dropped serve via a double fault and a forehand error. Overall, Williams was more successful on break points in the opening frame, converting four of five, while Kasatkina let half of her six chances go begging.
Kasatkina began to turn things back her way early in the second set. More terrific drop shots by the Russian led her to break the Williams serve in the opening game, for the second set in a row. Again, she would hold a 3-1 lead.
But Williams would once more tie things at 3-3, easily breaking the Kasatkina serve behind powerful winners off of both wings, followed by a double fault by the Russian down break point. Only three games away from a Williams triumph, there was potential for one of their matches to end in straight sets for the first time, after two complicated three-set victories, one for each player.
But Kasatkina was determined to push the match to three sets yet again, and broke Williams for 4-3 after a beautiful forehand down the line forced Williams to lunge, causing an error. The Russian then held for 5-3 in a 13-minute game, using all of her strength and fortitude to repel five break points and keep her nose in front. Two games later, Kasatkina held to tie the match at one set all.
"I knew that if there is a chance, I have to take it immediately," explained Kasatkina. "Because on the top level, you can get few chances per set or per match. And if you don't use it, you can lose the match after. So the one really important thing which I realized, that you have to see the chances and use them, for sure."
This would set up the blockbuster final set, in which not a single person could tell who would emerge victorious until the very final game. For the first time all night, Williams started a set with a strong opening service game, reaching game point with an ace, and then moving forward to put away a powerful shot to hold.
The American then claimed a lead by stealing the Kasatkina service for 2-0, breaking with a forehand winner. But Kasatkina struck back immediately, pulling the match back on serve at 2-1 with a backhand crosscourt return winner on her fourth break point of the game.
The players held through to 5-5, although Williams struggled through protracted service games twice, having to some up with some magical backhands on break points to get through difficult games. By contrast, Kasatkina was holding quite easily, facing zero break points in the four service games after being broken at 1-0.
Nevertheless, the Russian was perilously close to being ousted while serving at 5-4, when she fell behind 0-30. But Williams never put her in ultimate danger, hitting a plethora of unforced errors to let Kasatkina reel off four straight points and hold for 5-5.
"I really stayed strong on the 5-4, 0-30," said Kasatkina. "It was the toughest moment of the match. I didn't feel nervous, even when I didn't put [the] serve in. I knew what to do. So, it was the most important part of the match."
The decisive game came on the Williams serve at 5-5. After losing the first point of the game, Kasatkina hit an unbelievable angled drop shot for a winner to reach 15-15. Williams then pushed a backhand long for 15-30, and the frustration of the previous two points was expressed through her serve, as the American hit consecutive double faults to be broken at the most inopportune time.
The 20-year-old refused to let the pressure of reaching her most important final get to her, quickly racing to triple match point. Williams saved the first, but a backhand error by the American on the second put Kasatkina into the final.
The Russian's shocked expression after another Top 10 victory was real, but her progression through the event is no shock considering her form has rarely wavered through her five wins.