Friday’s BNP Paribas Open semifinals were a stage of victory for young guns Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka, as the 20-year-olds eliminated tennis legend Venus Williams and world No.1 Simona Halep, respectively. Our Karen Helf was right there in Indian Wells to bring us detailed reports from the spot.
Daria Kasatkina  d. Venus Williams  4-6 6-4 7-5
Kasatkina and Williams were on par in the head-to-head, with the young Russian taking Auckland in 2016 and the tennis legend Wimbledon that same year. Both players have solid footing on the 2018 WTA leader board. While Williams lead service categories, aces, first and second serve percentage, first-serve points won, Kasatkina surpassed her in break points saved and converted, second-serve points won and return points won.
As a BNP Paribas Open semifinalist, Kasatkina would have risen to a new career-high ranking. This week, the 20-year-old made it clear she wanted more and facing Williams, who owns forty-nine singles titles, she met her next goal in just under three hours.
The match delivered on its promised in quality, suspense and emotion. A quick trade of breaks opened the encounter. With a light wind, it seemed Williams took some heat off her serves. Kasatkina spoke of using her slice backhand to keep the ball in play. Both fought the wind with balls flying long from time to time.
With Kasatkina running down everything, she broke Williams again after a 10-point exchange and followed up with a love hold 3-1. The crowd raised support for the 37-year-old, as the set reached 3-3. As the long rallies and smart shot placement continued, Williams imposed her will by hitting deep, drilling overheads and successfully coming to net. The American captured four successive games to 5-3 and serving out the match seemed obvious. However, nothing was easy. Kasatkina ran down another break, but Williams went for her shots and broke for the set.
The next set was another display of excellent tennis. Both players doing everything to put one more ball over, hit the lines or disguise a drop shot. Kasatkina took an early lead 2-0. Once again, they tied at 3-3 as Williams broke her younger colleague. Kasatkina pulled ahead, winning the game that would not end, a twenty-two-point hold to 5-3. Despite a double-fault, the 19th-ranked Russian served out the set, 6-4.
They battled on in the third, both occasionally bending over to catch their breath after long rallies. The world No.8 Williams struck first with the quick break, but had perhaps less self-assurance than in the prior set. Her opponent seemed to take a lesson from her. Kasatkina was effectively disguising drop shots. The games went 2-2, 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, and Venus fought off a 16-point break. Kasatkina was showing more emotion with fist pumps. Williams produced service errors at the worst possible moment. Back-to-back double-faults gave Kasatkina the break she needed to 6-5 and she served out the match, dropping one point for a 7-5 win. Her racquet was airborne, as she held her face in disbelief.
After a well-fought loss, Williams was candid when asked about the challenge of playing Kasatkina:
I really just make too many errors. That’s pretty much all — I mean, I have to stop making that many errors against her.
In terms of her competitive edge, Williams has lost nothing. When speaking about her results in the desert, she stated:
I pretty much come to win tournaments, so if I don’t win, I’m not happy. I’m not here for results and all that stuff. You don’t get used to losses, ever.
Kasatkina had this to say about her opponent:
She was playing really good, honestly. It was a really tough match. I must give her respect, because she’s playing amazing.
When asked if she enjoyed the match, Kasatkina shared:
Sometimes I was even smiling on the court. In one moment you just catch yourself, you’re in night session, all crowd, you’re playing against a legend, and you are in the third set. And you’re just staying on the return, and you’re like, come on, maybe it’s the moment of your life.
Mid presser, Kasatkina received Instagram congratulations from her WTA mentor, Elena Vesnina (2017 BNP Paribas Open champion).
Naomi Osaka d. Simona Halep  6-3 6-0
The second semi took a U-turn. Halep lead the head-to-head 3-0, however, Osaka had pushed Halep to three sets in Miami and Roland Garros.
As the reigning No.1, it is no surprise that Halep is all over the 2018 status leader board. Despite her No.44 ranking, Osaka holds the top position in three categories: first-serve percentage, second-serve percentage and service points won, plus the third spot in aces and break points converted. A case for a victory was in the cards.
Riding high in confidence, 20-year-old Osaka promised an epic battle. She started and finished strong. Halep produced her counter punch style and leaned atypically towards ending points early in the set. In press, straightforward Halep explained that she had trouble feeling the ball and concentration escaped her. Despite that, both players held short service games to 3-3. The next three games went the way of Osaka. She closed the set with an ace exclamation point.
As the score indicates, Osaka’s powerful game, steady hand and well-placed serves were spot on in the second set. An ill-timed Halep double-fault gave Osaka the first break. Halep’s first serve was troublesome and Osaka continued to roll. The Romanian played only sixteen service points in the second set. Enough said. The most exciting part of the set was Osaka’s final service game. Leading 5-0, perhaps she had her own lapse of concentration. Back against the wall, Halep the fighter emerged, but eighteen points later, Osaka held for the set, 6-0.
Looking back, Halep appeared to have an easier draw by ranking, whereas Osaka successfully defended against Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, outstanding qualifier Sachia Vickery and Karolina Pliskova. Perhaps the Japanese had an upper hand in preparation.
The world No.1 accepted the loss and its realities, stating:
No, my head was not ready to play, and I couldn’t concentrate. I played okay until 4-3, but then I just went out. I don’t know why. I just lost my concentration. She also showed respect to Venus, saying she admired that she never gave up.
Post win, Osaka continued to entertain the press with dead-pan answers and comedic timing. When asked what’s the best part of being a 20-year-old on the WTA Tour who’s winning, she replied:
Can’t relate (smiling). I don’t know. I feel like I just started winning. It is a new feeling for me to be this consistent. So, I’m just trying to be happy about that. And also, this tournament is not over yet, so I’m just trying to focus on the next match right now.
Here are Osaka’s thoughts concerning her final match-up against Kasatkina:
I feel like it’s going to be really interesting, because she plays a completely different game than me, and I think we’re both in the final of this type of tournament for the first time. So it’s going to be fun, I think.
LOOKING AHEAD AT THE WTA SINGLES FINAL BETWEEN DARIA KASATKINA AND NAOMI OSAKA
Halep had this to say when asked if she was surprised about the 20-year-old finalists at a Premier Mandatory event:
Not really. Because Osaka is a strong player and she’s playing really well. I played in Melbourne against her, so I knew that she can make a good match. Also Kasatkina is playing well here, helps everything for her, because she’s rolling the ball very well. She’s playing with topspin.
Kasatkina revealed her greatest strength:
The fighting spirit, I think. Because even when I’m not playing really good, when I don’t feel forehand or backhand, I’m still trying to reach every ball and fight for every point. I think this is coming from childhood. They say you cannot teach that, it is in the heart.
When Osaka thought about what it would feel like to win the final, she responded:
Good (smiling). I mean, it would feel good, but I’m not trying to put pressure on myself or anything. I feel like every player I have played has had the pressure on them because — like, everyone has been seeded and stuff. So I’m just trying to be consistent and not worry too much on winning or losing.
Osaka is a talented young player with serious physical weapons and a great perspective.
Both young players have produced some of their best tennis at the BNP Paribas Open. Expecting anything less on Sunday is just, well, illogical.