Twelve months ago, the last two women standing were both over 30: Elina Vesnina beat Svetlana Kuznetsova in a three-set thriller, to claim by far her biggest career title, and four years after her only other two.
Fast forward one year, and the last two women standing, who would contest one of the most prestigious titles in women’s tennis, were both 20 years old, and part of the youngest final since 2001 when a 19-year-old Serena Williams would beat the 17-year-old Kim Clijsters.
Those two teenagers would go on to reach No1 and claim multiple Major titles, and many who had seen the progress of this year’s protagonists, Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina, were already seeing their potential to reach the top of their sport sooner rather than later.
It mattered not that neither woman had ever made it this far in any Premier Mandatory before, because by the final, both had taken seed after seed—and more—in their strides.
The unseeded No44 Osaka had the ill fortune to draw former champion Maria Sharapova in her opener, but it was a straight-sets win for the charismatic Japanese woman. Osaka then disposed of Agnieszka Radwanska, then one of last year’s No1s, Karolina Pliskova, and then the current No1, Simona Halep, to reach the biggest final of her career and a career-high ranking of 26—No22 if she went on to win her first title.
As for Kasatkina, she had picked up her first title while still a teenager, in Charleston a year ago while still ranked 42, and had since gone on to beat the best out there. With her fourth-round finish at the US Open last year, she would begin a run of wins over all four reigning Major champions—French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko, Wimbledon champ Garbine Muguruza, US winner Sloane Stephens, and Australian champion Caroline Wozniacki, plus current No1 Halep.
Then in Indian Wells this week, she beat former No1, and one of the form players of 2018, Angelique Kerber, plus Venus Williams in the semis in one of the matches of the year so far, her fourth straight top-20 win of the tournament. And it guaranteed a new career high of No11, and No9 should she win the title.
Osaka summed up the imminent final, the first-time meeting between the two young stars, perfectly: “I feel like we’re a new generation that is trying to push through.”
For such assured young women, they both got off to a nervy start, with errors and two breaks of serve. Little wonder, perhaps, given the size of the stage and the size of the occasion. Osaka got the first winner on the board to hold in the third game, and Kasatkina responded in kind, using her light footwork and tactical smarts to hold her own.
But gradually, Osaka upped her level and the depth and the power of her ball striking, and Kasatkina, perhaps still carrying the efforts of that three-setter against Williams—plus an intense season running into Indian Wells—was slightly off the pace.
Osaka fended off another break point in the fifth game with two huge backhand winners, and used the same devastating shot to break the Russian in the next game, 5-3. The Japanese-American served out the set, 6-3, in little more than half an hour, with 13 winners to just three from her opponent.
The pressure quickly showed in Kasatkina’s game in the second set, too, with an immediate break courtesy of a double fault. Her error rate was cranking up, and she increasingly struggled to manage the pace of Osaka’s shot-making. And that emboldened Osaka, who pulled of a smash winner and then a big forehand to break in fifth game, and backed it up with a love hold.
Kasatkina showed some flashes of the determination and flair that got her this far in the tournament to hold in the seventh game, but really had no answer as Osaka closed out set and match with a backhand drive volley, 6-2, after just 70 minutes.
She had clearly been the aggressor in the match, pulling off 23 winners to 10 from the Russian, and despite a slew of errors on both sides of the net, there really had looked like only one winner—and this will surely be just the first of many for the tall, charismatic woman who will find herself ranked 22 for the next Premier Mandatory that follows hot on the heels of this one in Miami.
Florida happens to be Osaka’s home, so she will enjoy even greater support than the wave of goodwill she received in Indian Wells. Will she feel more nerves there? It seems unlikely: the only sign of her nerves and lack of experience surfaced as she lifted the heavy BNP Paribas Open trophy.
She could not recall who to thank, hesitated over her own sponsors, turned belatedly to pay tribute to Kasatkina “for being super nice and a cool person”, and concluded with a giggle:
“This is probably the worst acceptance speech of all time.”
It was far from perfect, but charming nevertheless. And she will get better with practice—and very soon.
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BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge
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