Wuhan, China — It’s not every day you find a player ranked No29 in the world going through the qualifying rounds of a tournament, but that’s what Daria Kasatkina had to do to claim a place in the Wuhan Open main draw.
As a top-30 player, Kasatkina could have gained direct acceptance into the Premier 5 tournament in China. But the 19-year-old, forgot to sign up for the event before the deadline, which meant she had to win two qualifying matches to earn a spot in the main draw, which kicked off on Sunday.
You’d think a Premier 5 event – right under the WTA Finals and Premier Mandatories in terms of status on tour – is something a player would not forget, but Kasatkina can be forgiven considering this is her first full year on tour as a pro.
At the start of 2015, she was ranked 350. Today she is ranked 29 and climbing.
Her rise has been fast and the Russian teenager is still adapting to life on the road.
After nine long months of competing this season, Kasatkina admits she is feeling the effects of the brutal, unforgiving tennis tour.
“I’m feeling it in my body. It’s very difficult, not even physically, mentally it’s very difficult to go from Russia to America then to Brazil, then again America, then Asia, and all this. It’s very difficult really and I have to get used to it,” Kasatkina told Sport360 in Wuhan after beating Pauline Parmentier 6-2, 6-3 in the final round of qualifying on Saturday.
Kasatkina admits that she made a mistake not signing up for the tournament in time, but was still happy to get a couple of matches under her belt and a few extra ranking points.
“My brother usually helps me (with signing up for tournaments) but we both missed this one because there are a lot of tournaments and we just missed the deadline, so it’s okay,” she explains.
Cutest thing I've seen today: Daria Kasatkina's face when she mentions Nadal's loss yesterday. She's a Rafanatic!— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 20, 2016
“We realised a bit late, in Cincinnati, we were like ‘oh my God, what about Wuhan?’ And thank God Beijing is mandatory and you’re automatically entered because if not, that would have been a problem too.”
Kasatkina started 2016 by beating Venus Williams in the Auckland first round to register the first top-10 victory of her career. She made the third round at the Australian Open, had other big wins over the likes of Karolina Pliskova and Roberta Vinci, made the quarter-finals at the Olympics in Rio and has emerged as a young force to be reckoned with.
But her meteoric surge has come with its challenges.
“It’s getting more difficult because now opponents know who I am so they know how to play against me, what I’m doing. And now I have to maybe surprise them and obviously improve my game and be focused on every opponent and every point because it’s very important,” said Kasatkina.
Post-Rio, where she lost to Madison Keys in the last-eight, Kasatkina lost three matches in a row, at New Haven, Cincinnati and the US Open.
She spent two weeks practicing before flying to Wuhan and she feels she’s put those defeats behind her.
“I’m getting better I think,” she says when asked about how she handles her losses.
“Before when I was just starting to play professionally on the WTA, everything was so new for me, I was coming on court and I was so hungry – I’m still hungry but now it’s getting more difficult to play against good opponents.
“But still I’m enjoying it and practicing, I’m here and it’s unbelievable because two years ago I couldn’t imagine that in two years I would be here.”
Does she feel things have happened rather too quickly for her?
“A little bit yes. It’s just my first year and it was a really good season for me. And for example after a few matches in a row and I am already so pissed, so sad and my coach is telling me ‘Dasha, what is happening? Look you just lost a few matches, please be patient, enjoy, don’t put pressure on yourself!’” she says.
“Dasha, be cool!” is what her coach tends to tell her. And she seems to be taking his advice quite well.
She is not focusing on ranking, even though hers is quite high already, and she’s unsure how much more she’ll be playing in 2016. She’s taking it one tournament at a time but admits that qualifying to Zhuhai – a tournament where the players ranked 9-20 compete in a format similar to the WTA Finals in Singapore – would be a great target for her.
She may not care about the number next to her name, but does she feel like a top-30 player?
“It’s difficult to feel it when you’re in your first year on tour. I’m just playing and I’m trying not to put pressure on myself because if you do this you’ll feel bad,” she says.
Perhaps one of her greatest assets is that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has a sense of humour and has no problem making fun of herself.
As the conversation randomly steers towards the subject of karaoke, Kasatkina laughs and says: “I like it but I think the people around me don’t like it. If you want somebody to leave the room, I can take care of that.”
She prefers a cosy dinner with her team, to dressing up and going to a players’ party and her focus is to enjoy her tennis as much as possible. At 11:00am on-site on the first day of a tournament, what is Kasatkina doing? Playing pool with her brother in the players’ lounge.
Kasatkina reflects positively on her season so far and says the Rio Olympics was a special experience.
“I’m really happy that I had this experience when I’m 19, so next time I go there, to Tokyo hopefully, I’ll be really ready for everything,” she said.
Did she get to meet any of her favourite athletes there?
“I saw Usain Bolt once but I didn’t take a picture with him. We were standing with (Elena) Vesnina and (Ekaterina) Makarova and we saw Bolt and we took our phones out and we were just about to… then he was already gone. I saw Pau Gasol and I took a picture with him, because he’s a good friend of Sveta Kuznetsova, so that was cool.”
Asked which achievements she’s most proud of in 2016, she replied: “First was when I beat Venus Williams in Auckland, it was the first tournament, first match of the year, and I was playing against Venus Williams on centre court in Auckland and it was really special for me.
“And then I was playing Serena on Rod Laver Arena third round at the Australian Open. Then quarters of Indian Wells was also really special for me. It was a big run at a big tournament. But I think all this season was special for me.”
It’s not over yet. Who knows, maybe Kasatkina has a few special moments ahead of her in what’s left of 2016?