On a chilly Friday night, 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina upset eighth-seeded 37-year-old Venus Williams in a two-hour 48-minute Indian Wells semi-final to reach the first Premier Mandatory final of her career.
Less than a couple of hours later, an unseeded 20-year-old Naomi Osaka shocked world No. 1 Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0 also booking herself a spot in a maiden final at this level.
Both born in 1997, both knocking out some huge names en route to the final, Osaka and Kasatkina are enjoying a statement week in the California desert and have one clear message to the world.
“That we are coming. Very soon,” said Kasatkina with a smile, following her 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 success over Williams.
Osaka said after her win against Halep: “I kind of feel the same as she (Kasatkina) said. I feel like everyone sort of takes their paths different ways.
“I feel like maybe I came out a little bit slower than she has, because she’s obviously seeded in this tournament and stuff. But I feel like we ended up in the same place, and we’re both going to try really hard.
“And, yeah, I feel like there is a new generation, and we’re trying to push through.”
They’re not just trying, they’re succeeding.
Osaka’s fortnight in Indian Wells has seen her defeat Maria Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sachia Vickery, Karolina Pliskova and Halep so far, while Kasatkina’s victims alongside Williams are Katerina Siniakova, Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber.
Kasatkina was two points away from losing to Williams but the fighting spirit that saw her save a combined five match points en route to the Dubai final last month once again carried her over the finish line.
The Russian has posted victories over each of the four reigning Grand Slam champions within the past seven months, and her route to the Indian Wells title match has seen her defeat four consecutive top-20 players and Major winners.
Osaka, who is the youngest Indian Wells women’s finalist since Wozniacki in 2010, is now 3-4 lifetime against top-five opposition, while Kasatkina now owns five top-10 victories in 2018.
No stranger to battling for nearly three hours on court, Kasatkina apologised ahead of her press conference that she might not be able to string sentences together after such a huge win over Williams.
Her coach, Philippe Dehaes, reminded her during the match of the age difference between Kasatkina and Williams.
“She’s 37, you’re 20. Make her work!” demanded the Belgian coach.
But Williams kept fighting until the very end and it was tiny margins that made the difference in the end.
“She was playing really good, honestly. It was really tough match, so… Yeah. I must, like, give her respect, because she’s playing amazing, really,” said Kasatkina of the seven-time Grand Slam champion.
“Match like this, you’re just speechless. Even 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.”
But that doesn’t mean Kasatkina wasn’t able to soak it all in.
“Sometimes I was even smiling on the court,” said the Russian, who will rise to No. 11 in the world if she loses the final, and No. 9 if she wins it.
“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.”
When asked to describe what her biggest strength is, Kasatkina says it is her fighting spirit and jokes that her seemingly nerves of steel are “from cold Russia”.
“We are always unhappy. We are strong mentally. So this is our individual part.”
Osaka may have had a fairly easier time on court during her semi-final, but it was not without its nerves.
The young Japanese, who will crack the top-30 for the first time when the new rankings are released on Monday, turned around a 0-3 record against Halep by claiming a first victory over the Romanian.
It was their second showdown of the season – the first being a smooth straight-sets win for Halep in the Australian Open fourth round in January.
“I just really tried to be consistent. I think in Australia I just made way too many mistakes, and I sort of handed her the match. So I just tried to be a little bit annoying and return a lot,” explained Osaka.
The world No. 44 is into just her second WTA final and first since Tokyo 2016.
Asked how it feels to be in the final at a tournament like Indian Wells, Osaka’s response is not what one would expect.
“It feels a little bit lonely, because there’s, like, nobody here. As it goes on, there is less players and stuff. It’s kind of cool, but also a little bit sad because then you’re not around the people that you talk to and stuff,” said Osaka.
“But other than that, it’s cool. Because then, like, all the sushi, there is still a lot of sushi left and stuff…
“I’m really happy I got to the finals, but for me it’s not over until I win or, like, the day is over.”
Sunday will be the first meeting between Kasatkina and Osaka, with the former gunning for a second career title from four finals reached and the latter seeking a maiden WTA trophy.
Before this tournament started, Kasatkina spent time with Osaka on court trying to teach her how to hit a ‘tweener’ shot. The pair are both funny and likeable but have opposite playing styles and very different personalities.
“She’s bad. She cannot get it,” said Kasatkina with a laugh about Osaka’s tweener technique.
But all joking aside, Kasatkina knows what she’s going up against on Sunday.
“She’s playing really well. She’s hitting hard. She has a good serve. She is improving so much, so she’s a really dangerous player,” she said of Osaka.
Daria Kasatkina became the youngest Indian Wells women’s finalist since 2011 as she fought from a set down to defeat Venus Williams 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 on Friday.
At 20-years-old, Kasatkina is the youngest woman to make the final in the California desert since Caroline Wozniacki seven years ago, and she has done it by defeating four top-20 opponents in a row.
The world No. 19 is into the first Premier Mandatory final of her career, and second title match in a row, having placed runner-up in Dubai three weeks ago.
Kasatkina improved her record in career semi-finals to 4-3 and her record against Venus to 2-1. She was two points away from defeat but fought hard to get the victory, just like she did when she saved a combined five match points en route to the Dubai final last month.
“A bit tired,” Kasatkina said with a laugh on court after her win. “I was missing these emotions after Dubai and I finally got it.
“I don’t know (how I turned it around).
“I’m ready, one match to go. Thank you guys, thank you so much,” she told the crowd after her two-hour 48-minute triumph.
Venus and Kasatkina had split their two previous meetings heading into Friday’s contest, with both matches going the distance. Their most recent encounter was tight Wimbledon third round that saw Venus come back from a break down in the deciding set to win 10-8 in the third.
Kasatkina was playing her first Premier Mandatory semi-final, and third semi-finals of 2018.
Before the match, Kasatkina said she was looking forward to playing on Centre Court at the prime time slot of 7pm. The 20-year-old is never one to shy away from the big stage and she was keen to prove her mettle against the best, at one of the best tournaments in the world.
Both players entered the match having not dropped a set en route to the semi-finals.
Kasatkina had three top-20 wins under her belt already this fortnight and was searching for a fourth.
The 19th-ranked Kasatkina started the clash with a service break but a lucky net cord for Venus saw the American get a chance to strike back right away. A loose forehand saw Kasatkina hand the break back and they were on level terms at 1-all.
The Russian broke serve again then held at love for a 3-1 lead. But Kasatkina looked like she wasn’t feeling her forehand, and she overcooked a few of them to get broken as Venus made it 3-all.
Venus took a fourth consecutive game to lead 5-3, putting pressure on the Kasatkina serve to gain the advantage.
Serving for the opening set, Venus gets broken. Kasatkina brought out her full spectrum of variety on her shots, lobbing and slicing, and getting break point with a spinning drop shot that left Venus scrambling.
.@DKasatkina is too clutch!
— WTA (@WTA) March 17, 2018
Kasatkina double-faulted to face a first set point and over-hit a forehand long to lose the opening set.
Her coach Philippe Dehaes came to court between sets and told Kasatkina to do two things. The first was to go to the net more often to finish off the points up front.
The second was this: “She’s 37 and you’re 20. Make her work!”
Kasatkina did both upon resumption of play and got an early break and consolidated for a 3-1 lead.
Venus faced two break points in game five but saved both and just like she did in the first set, the No. 8 seed got the break back and drew level for 3-all.
Kasatkina was not letting go though and broke again to inch ahead 4-3. A marathon eighth game saw Kasatkina eke out a service hold and she served out the second set to force a decider.
Venus got her hands on a break point on Kasatkina’s first service game of the third set. The seven-time Grand Slam champion broke on an inside-out forehand winner to go up 2-0.
Kasatkina went up 0-40 on the Venus serve in the next game but the American saved all three break points just as the clock hit the two-hour mark. Still Kasatkina got the break back on her fourth opportunity and held for 2-2.
A huge backhand from Venus saw her save a break point in game seven and she hung on for a 4-3 lead.
— WTA (@WTA) March 17, 2018
Kasatkina was up against it as she served to stay in the match at 4-5. She started with two nervy points to fall behind 0-30 but held her nerve to hold.
A killer spinning drop shot from Kasatkina dropped jaws across the stadium and a Venus double fault saw the world No. 8 face two break points. And Venus double-faulted again to gift Kasatkina the break, and a chance to serve for the match.
A long all from Venus gave Kasatkina triple match point and the young Russian converted on her second opportunity.
Sneaky, @DKasatkina. Sneaky!
— WTA (@WTA) March 17, 2018
In Milos Raonic’s own words, his injury-plagued past 14 months have been “a catastrophe”.
The Canadian was ranked No. 3 in the world just 16 months ago. Today he is No. 38 after struggling with a series of injuries and setbacks that ranged from wrist surgery to a torn hamstring to a hurt knee.
Entering Indian Wells, Raonic had played just four matches on tour this year, winning one and losing three.
He seems to have turned a corner though as he booked himself a spot in the Indian Wells semi-finals, where he takes on another player who knows all too well the pain and suffering of injury: Juan Martin del Potro.
“At the beginning of last year I had a couple tears in my – let’s go down the list. Right adductor, left glute at the beginning of the year. Then I tore my hamstring beginning of February,” recalls Raonic.
“After Wimbledon I had to have wrist surgery. Through the summer I tried to play a few events, tried to treat the issue. That wasn’t possible. I had surgery just before the US Open. Was hoping to start my offseason in the early weeks of October. No, early weeks of November.
“And then in November I hurt my knee. I hurt my meniscus, so I couldn’t play for six weeks. Started training just before the Australian Open, and I’m here today…
“It’s been a catastrophe,” he concludes.
The 27-year-old Raonic, a finalist at Wimbledon in 2016, is into his eighth Masters 1000 semi-final and first since Paris 2016, thanks to a 7-5, 2-6, 6-3 win over 18th-seeded Sam Querrey on Friday.
The Canadian was runner-up to Novak Djokovic here in 2016 and made the last-four in 2015 – those were his last two appearances in the California desert, having missed it the 2017 edition through injury.
In his corner this fortnight in Palm Springs is Goran Ivanisevic, who is coaching Raonic on a trial basis in Indian Wells and Miami.
Ivanisevic, a former Wimbledon champion who helped Marin Cilic win the 2014 US Open, is having a strong start with Raonic, who is still finding his way back to top form.
“The one thing he has done is he’s made the objectives very clear with me and really tried to simplify things just so I can stick to the things I know how to do well and not try to overcomplicate my tennis at this moment,” Raonic said of Ivanisevic.
“And when you make a decision, go for it. Don’t question it. Don’t think about the what ifs. What should I do? What shouldn’t I do? Just stick.
“And he’s well aware. He’s come back from injury many times. You know, doing the things with conviction is the most important thing at first.”
Raonic, who is searching for a first title since Brisbane 2016, admits he is still lacking discipline during his matches but is pleased with how he’s been hitting the ball.
He’s not too happy about his ranking though, a sore subject he tries to avoid discussing.
“I prefer not to talk about it, I’m not too proud of it that’s for sure,” he says when asked about the number 38 next to his name.
“I’ll talk about things. Just you know I don’t feel great about it. When people ask me ‘what’s your ranking today?’ it’s not my proudest moment.”
He’ll move up to at least No. 25 when the new rankings are released on Monday.
Raonic takes a 2-1 head-to-head record against Del Potro entering their semi-final on Saturday.
Their most recent meeting was a Raonic win over Del Potro in the Delray Beach semi-finals last year.
Del Potro is into the last-four stage in Indian Wells for a third time in his career, with his best appearance being a runner-up showing to Rafael Nadal in 2013.
The Argentine is on a nine-match winning streak, his latest triumph a battling 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.
Del Potro is seeking a first title at the Masters 1000 level, having lost three finals in Indian Wells (2013), Shanghai (2013) and Canada (2009).
“I lost many finals, and I would like to be in the final again. But I know Milos is another guy who can win the tournament. Roger (Federer) and (Borna) Coric are playing so good. So everything can happen. But I’m looking forward to win the first one (Masters 1000) here,” said Del Potro.
The 29-year-old, who has recovered from four wrist surgeries throughout his career – one on his right and three on his left – nearly quit tennis a few years ago, but is now ranked No. 8 in the world, with an Olympic silver medal and Davis Cup title under his belt.
He hopes his journey back from injuries can be inspiring for others.
“They know how much effort I did to survive on this sport to make surgeries, for never give up. And I think it’s a good story for the kids to learn about the effort of the life, you know,” said Del Potro.
“Everybody has to do efforts to get what you want, and I wanted to keep playing tennis. I paid very high price to do it, but I did it and I’m so happy to solve the problem. I’m staying here with this level.”