In a three-hour battle that ended at midnight on Centre Court at the Aviation Club, Daria Kasatkina capitalised on her youth to prevail 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-2, saving two match points along the way.
The 20-year-old Russian upset the No. 7 seed and joked after the marathon match that she could go out there and start another contest.
“It was such a tough match. We spent like three hours on the court, but felt like one hour on a court because I was so much in the match, yeah,” said Kasatkina, who faces her fellow Russian Elena Vesnina in Thursday’s quarter-finals. .
“But now I feel a bit weird, yeah, because it’s done. It was such a big battle, such a big fight. So I’m just happy that I survive.”
It was a tug of war throughout with the first set lasting 59 minutes and the second going even longer – 76 minutes to be exact.
Kasatkina produced every shot in the book to survive that tiebreak, pulling off a curling forehand that landed in the corner, reminiscent of her favourite player, Rafael Nadal.
— WTA (@WTA) February 21, 2018
She saved two match points relying on some incredible variety, and won the set on a challenge that showed her ball had clipped the line.
The world No. 24 admits her mind was all over the place during the encounter and it was instinct that got her through in the end.
“I didn’t control my emotions, so… Really, I was just playing with my instincts, and that’s it, because my head was not working anymore,” said Kasatkina.
Referring to that challenge on set point in the second set, she added: “Oh, my God, that shot.
“I decided to challenge just in the last moment. Normally if you are watching from the side, you immediately say ‘challenge’ on this one. I was standing there thinking maybe it’s not. I had four challenges in this tiebreak, and I was thinking to challenge the ball, the only one my set point. Can you imagine what was happening in my head?”
Konta conceded that she ran out of steam towards the end of the match.
“At one point I was laughing, I did think we were playing two separate matches because she looked fresh as a daisy. That was not a great feeling,” said the 26-year-old Konta.
Down a set and a break, a down and out Kasatkina got a much-needed pep talk from coach Philip Dehaes.
“You’re very close. You want this? It’s beautiful out here. The weather is nice. Let’s stay another two hours.”
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 21, 2018
Kasatkina knows she’s due back on court in less than 24 hours for her quarter-final. Asked how she thinks she’ll recover, she said: “Thanks God I’m still young. Yeah, I have still some power, some energy. But of course we will see tomorrow because now I’m under adrenaline, so I don’t feel anything.
“Actually, I’m ready to go and play another one,” she added with a laugh. “But tomorrow we will see.”
Elena Vesnina has come to the defence of French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko saying she needs some time to mature and work on her attitude towards other players.
Vesnina, who claimed a 6-1, 7-6 (6) victory over Ostapenko in the Dubai second round on Wednesday, admits that Ostapenko’s reputation is not the best among their peers in the locker room but she believes the 20-year-old Latvian is improving in the tennis etiquette department.
“She’s a very confident girl, I must say. It helps her a lot. It’s a really good kind of feel that she has inside of her. A lot of players are saying that she’s not really kind of respectful to other girls. I mean, she’s still junior, give her some time. She’s getting better,” said the 31-year-old Vesnina.
“Yeah, she has this confidence in herself. She’s, like, different character compared to all the junior girls her age.”
Ostapenko stunned the tennis world when she came back from a set and a break down to defeat Simona Halep in the French Open final last year as an unseeded player.
She has a fiery personality that often rubs people the wrong way.
“There is some talks in the locker room sometimes. In the beginning, she had some problems. She was not shaking hands right, proper, blah, blah, blah, all these kind of things,” explained Vesnina.
“I was straight with her. I was telling her right away in her face. She’s actually answering me. I have a good contact with her. I’m going to tell it to her face. You shouldn’t say that, you shouldn’t do that.
“She actually sees that. She is kind of changing. I’m kind of her mentor, coach,” joked the Russian world No. 23.
“I know she’s young and she has all this pressure around her right now. I think, my opinion, she’s getting better, definitely getting better.”
Ostapenko concedes that Vesnina is someone who has experience and can teach her a thing or two.
“She’s very experienced and I think she’s a very smart girl,” Ostapenko told Sport360 of the Russian former Wimbledon semi-finalist.
“She’s been on tour for a long time and of course you can learn some things from her. If she can help with anything, she’s very experienced so you can learn some things from her.”
Ostapenko, ranked No. 6 in the world, has had a rough start to her 2018 season. She is 3-6 win-loss so far this year and her three wins came against opponents ranked 93 or lower.
The young Latvian has lost her opening match four times this season and she confessed that she’s still trying to adjust to life as a top-10 player.
While she attempted to sound positive after her defeat, saying she’ll do her best to look ahead and move past it, Ostapenko also acknowledged how tough that is to pull off.
Asked if staying positive is an easy thing for her to do after a loss, Ostapenko said: “Of course no because I think I really love winning and if I lose I take it very hard, it’s very hard for me to lose because I’m very competitive and I will just give my everything to try and win the match and if I’m losing I’m really disappointed after the match.
“Of course I’m trying to take good things out of it. Because this season I entered as a top-10 player and of course everybody expects more from me and almost every match I play, I play as a favourite and I really have to show my best. But that’s not easy with traveling and everything so I think everything will come with experience because it’s my first season as a top-10 player. And I think there’s still a long way until the end of the season so hopefully I can do much better in the tournaments and even when I lose I’ll just work even harder.”
Vesnina empathises with Ostapenko’s position and believes the young Latvian has the courage in her to get over this hump.
“I would say she’s brave, brave enough to say something in her face. She can say that, Oh, this player is nothing special. This player is like No. 3 in the world. You know, this kind of way,” said Vesnina, who faces Daria Kasatkina in Thursday’s quarter-finals.
“She’s kind of brave, confident in herself. She’s not afraid of everyone. That’s why she won French Open. She’s not afraid. She’s fearless.
“Now she’s getting in a bit different moment in her life. She’s defending a lot of points.
“She has this Grand Slam title. Nobody will take it away from her. She has the game. That’s the most important. Maybe she has some problems with her game, with some psychology, mental part. She needs to, you know, get more mature, get her emotions right.
“But definitely she’s a great player. We will see many, many matches of her in the future. She will win many tournaments in the future.”
The unique Dubai surface and conditions and quick turnaround from Doha (Ostapenko won the doubles final on Sunday and flew straight here) meant that she couldn’t adjust in time for this tournament.
Ostapenko didn’t suffer a dip in form right after her French Open title. She actually reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon a few weeks after her Paris breakthrough, and she had a strong Asian swing in the fall, winning a title in Seoul and reaching the semi-finals in Wuhan and Beijing to secure a berth in the WTA Finals for the first time.
Turns out having such a clear target, like qualifying for Singapore, is what drove her to success end of last year.
“I think after Wimbledon I took some time off and I was not that ready for the US series so I didn’t play amazing. I just realised after the US series that I was not ready to play it,” Ostapenko said.
“Then I really wanted to get to Singapore so after US series I just came home, I took a couple of days off then I just started to work so hard because I really wanted to make it to Singapore and I think it paid off because I won Seoul and made two semis so I had three great weeks, so I got to Singapore, that was my goal.
“I think when you lose you start to work harder sometimes it’s even helpful to lose because then you’re more motivated because you want to play another tournament, you want to win it and you want to have the feeling I had at the French Open.”
There is an art to fully understanding and appreciating Naomi Osaka.
Her booming forehand on court is a stark contrast to her soft-spoken persona off it. She looks serious and often negative during a match but giggly and calm in interviews and press conferences.
The 20-year-old is self-deprecating and frequently makes fun of herself for being shy.
Born in Osaka to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, she moved to New York when she was three before relocating to Florida, where she currently resides.
Exposure to a mix of cultures from a very young age must have been quite the experience for Osaka.
“Yes, it’s really funny you say that, because in New York we all lived in this one big house, my dad’s parents and everyone, so there was like a bunch of Haitian culture and also my mum, and her Japanese culture,” Osaka tells me with a chuckle, as we speak on the sidelines of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, where she faces defending champion Elina Svitolina in Thursday’s quarter-finals following an impressive 6-2, 7-6 (5) win over Estonian Anett Kontaveit on Wednesday.
“I feel like I have a lot of Japanese qualities, like I try not to be intrusive and I’m also very careful in public, I don’t want to talk loud or anything but then also I feel like if something isn’t right, I want to try and say something about that.
“Growing up in a house like that was really good for me because you don’t really see everything differently, everything is the same sort of and I think that’s really cool.
“My mum she is very prideful, she has that Japanese pride and our entire family is very competitive and my dad he’s also very proud of where he’s from and I’m really glad they were able to teach me that. Because my dad for example, every time I win or lose a match he says he doesn’t care as long as he knows I tried my best. He says that our ancestors are very proud of us. I just feel like I play for my family and I just want to make them happy.”
Ranked 48 in the world, Osaka reached the fourth round of the Australian Open last month – her deepest run at the Grand Slam level to date.
She reached the third round in each of her first three majors and owns two victories over top-10 opponents – Angelique Kerber at the 2017 US Open and Venus Williams in Hong Kong last fall.
She grew up idolising Serena Williams, and says both sisters are the reason she started playing tennis.
Osaka has played Venus twice so far, last season at Wimbledon and Hong Kong, but is yet to take on Serena.
“I would swap the Hong Kong win with a Wimbledon win because I feel like Wimbledon is her best. I would have really liked to beat her where she was at her best,” says Osaka of the evergreen Venus.
“But I think despite that, the two matches that we played were really good and I’m really honoured to have played her two times in the same year.
“Growing up and really respecting both of them, they were sort of the reason why I started tennis in the first place and I’m just grateful I was able to play Venus and I really hope I can play Serena.”
If Osaka keeps progressing the way she has been, pretty soon she herself can be someone young players look up to and aspire to emulate.
“If there’s anyone that looks up to me, I’m sorry,” she quips. “I’ll try to do better so that they can have something to look up to. But the me right now is a little bit immature and I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m sort of thinking of this as a process and if you look up to me right now I hope you wait so I can mature a bit.”
End of last year, Osaka hired Serena’s former hitting partner Sascha Bajin as her coach. Bajin, who also worked with Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki, gets along well with the young and quirky Osaka, and is inspiring her to become more self-assured and positive.
Dressed in a lime green t-shirt that matches her shorts, Bajin gives out encouraging cheers to his student during her second round match against Kontaveit on Wednesday.
Osaka is in control of the opening set after dropping serve early on.
“Keep it up. Every point,” Bajin says softly.
It’s a little windy, so a few errors are understandable. But the talented Japanese keeps looking up to Bajin in frustration almost each time she misses.
“You got this,” he tells her after she sends a backhand long. In between, he’s checking the real-time stats of the match on a tablet provided by SAP.
Despite squandering a lead in the second set, Osaka still wraps up the win in straights.
She inexplicably laughs every time I mention Bajin to her. It’s clear they’ve hit it off fairly quickly into their working relationship. Osaka jokes that she tries to be a good pupil, but that sometimes instructions go through one ear, and out the other.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) January 16, 2018
“He’s really funny. I feel like he has a lot of positive energy which helps me a lot because I’m a little bit of a downer on myself and I feel like he’s taught me a lot of good things and hopefully I can learn more without forgetting it,” she added.
“I feel like I’m the type of person that puts a lot of self doubt into themselves and is really a perfectionist. And I feel like if I believed in myself the way other people believed in me I probably would be a lot better and that’s something I’ve been working on this year.
“I feel like there are certain players that nobody wants to play and I hope I can be one of those players too.”
Indeed Osaka comes off as someone who doesn’t have a full grasp of how good she is.
Bajin is trying to help her with that.
“Yes definitely I want to help her believe in herself a little bit more. But I think that the more matches she plays and beats some of these girls in front of her the more her self-confidence will grow and I think this will come naturally over time, it’s part of the experience,” he explains.
This may be Bajin’s first gig as a full-time head coach but he has always been more than a sparring partner in his previous roles with Serena, Azarenka and Wozniacki.
He likes to go the extra mile and extend his duties to whatever will make his players more focused on the task at hand, that is to train and compete to the best of their ability.
“My job hasn’t changed much. I try to help Naomi wherever I can. I’m going to go now in a minute and help her get her laundry that she forgot at the hotel. Whatever it takes to make the life of my players easier I’m going to do,” he says.
On tour, Osaka is slowly trying to come out of her shell. While she says she’s comfortable doing commercials and sitting through press conferences, interacting with other players remains a work in progress.
She’s sarcastic and a must-follow on social media, where she often mocks herself for being “awkward”. I ask her if being more open on Twitter has helped her become less shy around her peers.
“A little bit and also I feel like it’s a little bit not because I would say stuff online, it’s really easy to type it, and then when I talk to people in person I don’t really say as much. I feel like it hurts a little bit. But also there are other people that understand me,” she admits. “I feel like I’m less shy now though.”
In Japan, Osaka is starting to warrant more attention. She has appeared in commercials with Kei Nishikori, who is an icon as Asia’s first man to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
Osaka appeared in Nishikori’s exhibition match last year in Japan, and quickly switches to self-deprecating mode when asked if she received a big reception there.
Fabulous 💅 lol pic.twitter.com/1UsKUX2HpN
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) November 24, 2017
“Well I mean it’s Kei, like come on, everyone is there for Kei. I feel like background character number one,” she says with a smile.
“But everyone was really nice. My grandparents after all my matches, especially at the Australian Open this year they’ve been really nice and supportive. My grandpa was texting my mum that I’m on the news in Japan so that’s really cool to hear.”
So what qualities does she have that people may not be aware of?
“I’m very friendly – question mark. And if I have a friend then I’m very loyal, because I don’t have that many friends. If you get to know me then I’m a little bit aggressive too,” she says before she starts petting a cat that briefly interrupts our interview.
Aggressive? On the court, yes. But off it? That sounds hard to believe!
So today I went running, picked weeds, and accidentally fell asleep for the longest. I’m here living my birthday to the fullest, wyd 😩?
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) October 16, 2017