For more than a decade, Agnieszka Radwanska has tortured many opponents with her variety, impeccable shot selection, exquisite placement and cunning slices.
That one-of-a-kind game – as her coach Tomasz Wiktorowski would describe it – took her to No. 2 in the world, got her into a Wimbledon final, and saw her achieve great success on tour.
But as the 28-year-old Pole attempts to climb back up the rankings following a disappointing 2017 ruined by injuries, Radwanska is forced to face a younger generation of opponents, who hit harder, run faster, and share some of her magical qualities.
That was the case on Monday when 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina defeated Radwanska 7-5, 6-4 in the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
It was Kasatkina’s first match win in Dubai, on her second visit to the tournament while Radwanska is a veteran who won the event in 2012.
“I think she can do everything on court. Very good hands, very good touch. She can mix it up. So obviously I think that what makes her very difficult opponent,” said Radwanska of the young Russian.
You’d think Radwanska was describing herself not Kasatkina.
“Of course, everything changed. Especially I think physically it’s also tougher than it was, especially playing the young ones. Intensity in the game, it’s always bigger. You playing more those longer, good matches. So sometimes, physically and mentally it’s also tough,” added Radwanska.
Kasatkina needed five set points to secure a 7-5 lead over the former Dubai champion then went up a break in the second. Radwanska drew level for 3-all though but then faced a slew of break points in game seven and dropped serve to give Kasatkina the edge once again.
Still Radwanska would not fade and she broke back immediately. Another break followed as Kasatkina put herself in the position to serve for the match at 5-4 and this time, she did not falter, closing out the clash in just under two hours.
Radwanska says she’s finally feeling healthy once again but believes the road back to the top-10 can be a long one – she is currently ranked 31.
“I know it’s going to be difficult. Everything is changing going forward,” she explained.
Kasatkina is now 2-0 against Radwanska, having also defeated her in a close three-setter in Beijing last year.
“I was just ready for this. Everybody knows that Aga is a tricky player. She can play unbelievable winners from any part of the court, doesn’t matter where. So I was kind of ready for that,” explained Kasatkina, who is ranked No. 24 in the world.
“I was just trying to focus only on my shots. If she hits some unbelievable shot, not to put too much attention on this…
“Against these kind of players, you have to be patient, otherwise you can go crazy. You can lose few important points in a row. This is what they’re waiting for. So, yeah, the important part was really mental.”
Kasatkina credits her creative style of play to watching a lot of men’s tennis growing up combined with pure instinct.
She hopes to end the season in the top-15 and believes she’s progressing at a solid rate.
“I feel much better. I feel much stronger than last year. I think that’s normal to feel like this, especially when you’re 20 years old. So, yeah, I feel like I’m really improving.”
Another young talent to advance on Monday is Japanese wildcard Naomi Osaka, who eased past an ailing Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-2 and will face either Anett Kontaveit or Sam Stosur in round two.
“I’m not feeling really well. I’m ill. It started in Doha and I imagine it’s fatigue from playing Melbourne, St. Petersburg, Fed Cup, really good in a row, and then I arrived in Doha, and maybe a strange climate, and maybe a virus there. Definitely I didn’t feel good out there but also I’ve got to give credit to Naomi who served pretty strong and solid and took her chances,” said the French No. 8 seed.
Osaka, who made the fourth round of the Australian Open last month, is making her second appearance in Dubai, and has matched her best result here by making the second round.
“I just tried to stay really positive throughout the whole thing,” said the 20-year-old Osaka of her opener against Mladenovic.
“I know she can be really tricky, so I just didn’t really want to, like, show that I was frustrated because then she probably would have, like, upped her game.”
Other winners on Monday include Russian pair Elena Vesnina (defeated Peng Shuai) and Ekaterina Makarova (ousted Anastasija Sevastova).