When Daria Kasatkina tries to describe the special connection she has formed with her coach Philippe Dehaes and why they’ve been working well together so far, the young Russian struggles to find the words.
“He’s trying to listen to me,” said the 20-year-old, who defeated Caroline Wozniacki for a second time this season to reach the quarter-finals of Indian Wells on Tuesday.
“It’s tough to explain. It’s just coming from inside, you know. It’s not, like, just one part is changing or another part is changing. It’s like everything together. Small things are making the difference…
“It’s really tough to find right people which would be around you, like, I don’t know, 300 days per year, 24 hours. It’s tough to find your people, and I hope I found them.”
Kasatkina, enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 19 this fortnight, has been showing great progress week on week so far this season and is coming off a runner-up showing in Dubai, where she saved a combined five match points in her victories over Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta, before falling to Elina Svitolina in the final.
With her back against the wall, Kasatkina is as dangerous as ever, and she showed that fighting ability once again against world No. 2 Wozniacki in Indian Wells on Tuesday, where the Russian was behind in both sets but managed to seal the deal 6-4, 7-5. She faces 10th-seeded Angelique Kerber in Thursday’s quarter-finals.
Kasatkina’s record against top-two opposition now is a stunning 5-3.
This year alone, Kasatkina has defeated three top-five opponents and she posted victories over each of the four reigning Grand Slam champions (Jelena Ostapenko, Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Wozniacki) within the past seven months.
Dehaes, a Belgian coach who teamed up with Kasatkina last fall ahead of the Kremlin Cup, has great belief in his student’s abilities.
“I trust her. I don’t try to come and put too much information in her head because for me, she is an artist,” Dehaes told Sport360.
“So she has to just respect one or two very important rules in her game and also in the head and after that I have to trust her.
“She didn’t ask me to come on the court (during Muguruza match in Dubai) but if she asked me to come I was ready to say ‘Dasha don’t ask me what you have to do because actually you know what you have to do, it’s just having the capacity to do it’. And make some crazy things and play this tennis that is sleeping in here and that she has to just, like a flower, come like this (bloom).”
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
Dehaes’ on-court pep talks have already become a big hit with tennis fans online, with videos of him talking to Kasatkina during her epic comeback matches in Dubai shared all over social media.
“You’re very close. You want this? You want to continue the fight? It’s beautiful out here. The weather is beautiful, full of people. Let’s stay another two hours, okay?” Dehaes told Kasatkina during a changeover in her match against Konta in Dubai. She smiled after those last words and ended up saving two match points and winning the contest.
“He has become so popular after (that speech). Famous guy,” jokes Kasatkina.
“Actually, the way he’s on-court coaching, he’s the same way in the life. We were having so much fun during the practice, off the court. Yeah, I’m pretty happy now…
“I ask him, like, how you are finding these kind of words. He says, ‘I don’t know. Just coming from my heart’.”
Asked if she has a favourite speech she’s received so far from Dehaes, Kasatkina says: “The speech, which was in Dubai, the most famous one. He’s like, ‘let’s stay two more hours here’. Actually, I stayed exactly two more hours on the court.
“After I said, ‘why you couldn’t say one hour, one-and-a-half, at least?’ ‘No, I was enjoying being on the court watching that tennis’. I say, ‘Good. Good job’.”
Kasatkina believes she’s been feeling more confident on the big stages ever since she joined forces with Dehaes, whom she says is not surprised at any of her major wins.
Philip Dehaes explaining to Daria Kasatkina why and how she has to be more aggressive and take her chances. “If you miss, you miss. What can we do? But until now she is not better than you. You are a little bit afraid.” #DDFTennis pic.twitter.com/CghocLZEup
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) February 24, 2018
“Of course I knew she has the capacity to be so involved in the fight. The thing is that because she’s very young, she has to do it and show to herself that she can do it,” Dehaes said in Dubai after her comeback wins over Konta and Muguruza.
“And here she did in a big tournament against the top girls, it’s a big improvement for her. She will learn a lot from this…
“The key is not to beat the 1, 2, 3, 4… it’s absolutely a great bonus, but today she is 25 and sometimes she has problems against girls who have a lower ranking because she feels that she cannot lose, blah blah blah, a lot of stuff like this.
“So mentally she has to improve to play her best level against girls who are not so good as Muguruza, Wozniacki, or Konta, which is easier mentally because you have a bit like nothing to lose, you have not too much expectation and then you’re better.
“The key is to do what she did today almost every week against everybody.”
Kasatkina has many unique abilities. She reads the game like no other, blurring the line between instinct and tactics and choosing her shots like she would decide on a chess move.
“She outsmarted me today, which is fair enough,” said Wozniacki on Tuesday after losing to Kasatkina.
Kasatkina agrees, and explains that both her and Wozniacki played a very tactical match.
“Tennis is a mind game, and today was especially this one,” said Kasatkina.
Bend It Like @DKasatkina!
— WTA (@WTA) March 14, 2018
The world No. 19 also has a rare combination of having the ability to hit with lots of power, while also being capable of slicing and dicing to mix up the pace.
“It’s very rare, it’s why for me she has huge capacity for sure to be, one day, maybe in two or three years, one of the best tennis players in the world,” said Dehaes of that particular combo.
“And the main point of course is to win a big, big tournament. Because it’s not a question about ranking. If you’re 20, 25, 15, 18, it’s a bit the same. Now it’s about going to win one of the big four, and to prove to herself she can be part of the best ones.”
Kasatkina will be the top-ranked Russian when the new standings are released after Indian Wells, moving past Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Vesnina, whom she beat in Dubai en route to the final.
Kasatkina calls Vesnina her “Tennis Mama” and the pair have a good relationship of the court.
“She’s a very talented and sweet girl and big fighter,” Vesnina says of Kasatkina.
“I’m really happy about her new partnership with her new coach. I think it’s working really well. Yeah, she’s 20-years-old, and let’s see, you know. I think this year she will break through.
“She needs to have results in the big tournaments, you know. She has the game for that.”
When the day comes for Juan Martin del Potro to retire from professional tennis, he has a clear idea of how he wants to be remembered in the sport.
“I hope they can say I was the most patient player on tour, or the most emotional,” Del Potro told me between at the start of the Indian Wells tournament.
For Del Potro, patience is everything. It is what got him through four wrist surgeries – one on his right and three on his left – and what has helped him get back to the top-10 this season for the first time since 2014.
The 29-year-old from Tandil, Argentina returned to tennis two years ago after undergoing triple-surgery on his left wrist.
A US Open champion in 2009, who peaked at a career-high ranking of No. 4 in 2010, Del Potro was nearly forced to quit tennis due to his physical problems but has somehow come through it still standing and I currently ranked No. 8 in the world.
Since his return, he has won an Olympic silver medal, has clinched Argentina a first Davis Cup crown, has made the semi-finals at the 2017 US Open – defeating Roger Federer along the way – and has claimed three titles, two in Stockholm and one ATP 500-level trophy in Acapulco last week.
Does he see this part of his life as a second career, or a continuation of his journey?
“It could be a new career after my third surgery because I won incredible titles, I won a silver medal in Rio, the Davis Cup title, the top-10 again after many many years, you could call it like a second career,” says Del Potro.
Otra emoción inolvidable. Gracias Tandil!!! 🇦🇷🇦🇷🇦🇷 pic.twitter.com/LJEhR3figV
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) August 16, 2016
The ‘Tower of Tandil’ is into the fourth round in Indian Wells, where he takes on his countryman Leonardo Mayer on Wednesday night (not before 7:00am Thursday Dubai time).
Del Potro is 13-3 win-loss so far this season, and is on a seven-match winning streak.
Some of his most successful career moments have come in the United States. Six of his 21 titles were won in America. He has reached the quarter-finals or better four times at the US Open, and was runner-up in Indian Wells, California in 2013.
“I feel really comfortable in the United States because it’s close to my hometown and also I have a lot of friends living in Miami and I have my own house in Miami so the United States feels like my second home,” he says.
Nonetheless, Argentina is deeply rooted in Del Potro’s DNA and he still lives in his hometown of Tandil. He is considered a national hero there, especially after taking silver in Rio and winning the Davis Cup.
He says he takes his home country with him everywhere he goes.
“The mate, mate is a very specific drink from our country. It’s like a hot tea, with ‘yerba’ and that’s very typical of Argentinean people, and for me too. I take this drink everywhere I go and if you see Argentinean people around the world, they must have the mate for sure. It’s a moment to share with friends and family,” he explains.
He and his next opponent, Mayer, go way back. Mayer, ranked No. 47 in the world, is only one year older than Del Potro and they came up in the sport together.
“I will play another Argentinian guy tomorrow, which is a special match for both of us. It’s not easy when you play against a friend,” Del Potro told reporters after his third round win over David Ferrer on Tuesday.
“We practice a lot together. We train at the same club in Buenos Aires. We grew up together. We won the Davis Cup together. And we have dinners together and we spend a lot of time together.
“It will be a special match for both. And I know if he has a good day, he’s very dangerous guy, and he plays solid from the baseline. He plays very flat, and his serves are good enough to beat me or to beat anyone on tour.”
We’re only in the fourth round stage but everyone is already talking about a potential Del Potro-Federer final. They are the two biggest draw cards still alive in the tournament, and have a long history of some unforgettable encounters throughout their careers.
“I love to play with him, we’ve played epic matches during our whole career and it’s not easy to play with the person you admire but if I had to take one match or one opponent to play in a final I would take Roger for sure, because one day I could tell my kids ‘I played many times with Federer and I beat him’ and that’s why I like to play with him,” Del Potro said of the Swiss legend before the tournament.
Del Potro’s popularity is undeniable and he admits “I feel like a local wherever I go”.
He believes fans have a special connection to him because they know what he has endured to continue to compete in the sport.
Del Potro’s left wrist surgeries have meant that he has had to change the way he plays tennis. Accepting his new situation and adapting his game to it is probably the greatest triumph of his career, and it’s why he is back in the top-eight after all he’s been through.
“I know I’m playing a different game than a few years ago. I mix it up with the slice, drop shots. I try to come to the net more often than years ago,” explains Del Potro.
“I like the way I’m playing now. It’s more fun to watch, also. And I improved on other things in my game as my volleys and slices, and I think I have a complete game at the moment, but I know what to do to improve that…
“I think I’m a more complete player now… But in terms of all my game, of course I would prefer to have again my old two-handed backhand. But this is the way that I play today and I have to agree with that.”
Simona Halep believes Serena Williams deserves to be seeded No. 1 at tournaments in her comeback from maternity leave “because she left as No. 1 in the world”.
Serena is back to the tour following a 13-month absence during which she had her first child, Olympia, last September, and is unranked. The American can enter up to eight tournaments though with a protected ranking of 22 (hasn’t been unseeded at an event since Cincinnati 2011), but cannot be seeded with that protected ranking.
That meant that the 23-time Grand Slam champion faced off with her eighth-seeded sister Venus as early as the third round in Indian Wells on Monday.
It prompted many to raise questions over the WTA rules and whether a player returning from maternity leave should also be given a ‘protected seeding’.
“I was thinking about Serena in this tournament, and also we were talking a little bit with my coach (Darren Cahill). And I think she should have been actually No. 1 seed in this tournament because she left as No. 1 in the world,” said current world No. 1 Halep on Tuesday following her 7-5, 6-1 victory over Wang Qiang in the fourth round at Indian Wells.
“And to give birth, it’s the best thing in the world. It’s more than a sport. So I think she should have been ranked as she left. Not taking the ranking because she didn’t play tournaments, but just protected ranking for — I don’t know how many tournaments you have, like, eight. She could be the No. 1 seed for that, for those tournaments. This is my opinion.”
Halep is echoing her coach Darren Cahill’s thoughts, who tweeted the following during Venus and Serena’s third round clash that was won by the older Williams sister 6-3, 6-4.
this match should not be happening in a 3rd round. Serena (and all mothers) should be protected by the WTA and allowed to use their protected ranking for seeding, if applicable. Women should not be penalized for giving birth by starting from zero 😊
— Darren Cahill (@darren_cahill) March 12, 2018
Halep was in the stands watching the all-Williams clash on Monday night, despite being scheduled first on Stadium 1 on Tuesday.
“It was my idea last night, actually,” said the Romanian, who next faces Petra Martic in the quarter-finals.
“It’s always nice to watch them. I love the way that they are motivated and they are still playing at this age, Serena with the kid. So it’s a great thing what they do for sport, and it’s great that tennis has them.
“It was really fun to come out here and watch the game. And also, you know, I have many things to learn from them. That’s why I’m trying just to go in to watch every time I can…
“I’m the world No. 1 in this moment, but I just watched the best player in the world,” she says of Serena.
A post shared by Simona Halep (@simonahalep) on