Osaka vs Kasatkina, a rivalry for the future

Their contrasting personalities and playing styles make Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina an intriguing new rivalry. Their talent and boldness make them the new leaders of the Next Gen of women’s tennis, along with reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, another exciting 20-year-old.

Daria Kasatkina of Russia congratulates Naomi Osaka of Japan after Indian Wells final.   -  AFP

“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” — President Theodore Roosevelt

Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkinaff dismissed the Old Guard at the $7.97 million BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California. Osaka, a quintessential power player ranked No. 44, disposed of five-time major titlist Maria Sharapova in the first round 6-4, 6-4. It was no fluke. Unseeded but unafraid of big-name opponents, Osaka then routed former world No. 2 Agnieszka Radwanska 6-3, 6-2, No. 5 Karolina Pliskova 6-2, 6-3, and No. 1 Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0.

Kasatkina, a trickster in the mould of Martina Hingis, also looked very good making recent and past Grand Slam champions look very bad. She outsmarted and out-steadied 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens 6-1, 7-5; 2018 Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 7-5; and former world No. 1 Angelique Kerber 6-0, 6-2. Then she outlasted venerable, seven-time major titlist Venus Williams in a rousing 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 semifinal.

After upsetting the 37-year-old Williams, who joined the pro tour three years before she was born, Kasatkina was asked about the fast-rising Next Gen players. “We are coming. Very soon,” she confidently replied.

The broad-shouldered, 5'7" Kasatkina credits her Russian upbringing for her fortitude and success during the past six months. “I’m from cold Russia,” she said. “We are always unhappy. We are strong mentally.”

Change of rhythm, change of speed, change of trajectory, Daria Kasatkina showed her exemplary skills at the Indian Wells.   -  AP

 

Kasatkina explained what makes her compatriots happy enough to smile. “When we are winning, we are pretty happy. Sometimes I was even smiling on the court. Like, in one moment you catch yourself. You’re in a night session, you’re playing against a legend and you are in the third set. You’re like, ‘Come on, maybe it’s the moment of your life.’ To play Venus Williams on Centre Court in the United States, in the semifinals, one of the biggest tournaments, you just put your heart out there.”

That Kasatkina did in the most riveting women’s match of the tournament. After losing the opening set 6-4 against Williams, Kasatkina, whose older brother Alexandr is her fitness trainer, battled back with two service breaks to go ahead 4-3 in the second set. Then, with a wide gamut of facial expressions revealing her agony and ecstasy, she fought off four break points and eventually held serve on her fifth game point in the roller-coaster 22-point game. Two games later, Kasatkina held serve again for the set, 6-4.

In the third set, she was buoyed by the words of her coach, Philippe Dehaes, during an earlier on-court visit: “Remember, she’s 37 and you’re 20.”

Williams, though looking fatigued, drew energy from the partisan crowd as the sentimental favourite. She needed every bit of it when she staved off two break points in the fifth game and another in the seventh game.

The tables suddenly turned. This time, Kasatkina trailed 4-5, 0-30 — just two points from defeat. Displaying poise and stamina, she reeled off four straight points to escape. A costly Williams double fault gave Kasatkina the service break for 6-5. Then she easily held serve for a 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 comeback victory. The most telling stat: Kasatkina had broken Williams’ powerful serve seven times.

“Kasatkina is talented and motivated,” said a thoroughly impressed Chris Evert, an ESPN analyst and 1970s-’80s superstar. “She has a wonderful drop shot and good hands for volleying. She’s the most versatile 20-year-old I’ve ever seen.”

Before the eagerly anticipated final between the two attractive comers, Dehaes told The New York Times: “Daria will have to do the Kasatkina. It needs to become a copyrighted brand: change of rhythm, change of speed, change of trajectory. She also will have to come up a bit more to the net than she did today against Venus, where we could see that she is still a bit afraid of that.”

Unfortunately, Kasatkina’s complex game, not quite ready to be copyrighted, ran out of gas. In sharp contrast, Osaka’s high-octane game fired on all cylinders. Aside from nervously losing her serve with three unforced errors in the first game, Osaka outclassed her friend with explosive first serves, often around 115 mph, and consistently aggressive groundstrokes. Osaka made her first career title against a red-hot opponent look routine, prevailing 6-3, 6-2 in little over an hour.

In her high-pitched, soft-spoken victory speech to the crowd, the self-effacing Naomi Osaka said, "This is probably going to be, like, the worst acceptance speech of all time.”   -  Getty Images

 

Osaka exemplifies the globalism of tennis. She has a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, was born in Osaka, Japan, and has grown up in Boca Raton, Florida. For the past two years, she’s trained at the Evert Tennis Academy there. Evert says of Osaka, “I’ve seen the blood, sweat, and tears at my club. I’ve seen how hard she works. She’s streamlined her body. She’s earned it.”

Besides transforming her once-chubby frame, the 5'11" Osaka remodelled her erstwhile one-dimensional game. “We’ve seen the power. And we were in awe of the power,” Evert said. “But now we’re seeing the consistency and the court coverage in this tournament.” Those assets allow Osaka to play smarter. “Two years ago, Naomi was erratic and impatient. She’s a new player now.”

While Osaka can be garrulous and giggly with zany Monica Seles-like quotes in press conferences, she confides, “I’m a little bit scared of people. I’m shy. I don’t talk to people in the locker room.”

In her high-pitched, soft-spoken victory speech to the crowd, the self-effacing Osaka said, “This is probably going to be, like, the worst acceptance speech of all time.” That drew a few laughs from spectators. She clearly has a winning personality as well as a winning game.

“You gotta love her,” said Evert. “This is her personality. These acceptance speeches will bring her out of her shell, as well as winning big tournaments like this.”

Osaka and Kasatkina. We should savour this delicious rivalry for years to come. Pass the popcorn.

Juan Martin Del Potro holds up the trophy after his victory over Roger Federer in the final of Indian Wells.   -  AFP

 

Del Potro Stuns Federer in Masters Breakthrough

Who knows how many Grand Slam titles Juan Martin del Potro might have racked up if multiple wrist injuries and surgeries hadn’t derailed his career? When the 20-year-old Del Potro captured the 2009 U.S. Open with a stunning five-set final upset over Roger Federer, he looked like a sure-fire top 5 player for the next decade.

In his darkest days, the popular Argentine contemplated retirement. But his sudden resurgence in 2016, even with a one-handed backhand slice to accommodate his weakened wrists, brought him an Olympic silver medal. After beating then-No. 1 Novak Djokovic at Rio de Janeiro Games, Del Potro said, “Tennis became happy again.” Delpo consolidated those gains in 2017. He finished strongly, again upsetting Federer to make the US Open semifinals, and wound up No. 11.

Nicknamed “The Tower of Tandil,” the 6'6" gentle giant has always relied on two formidable weapons, a booming serve and overpowering forehand. No less crucial, though, have been his calmness under pressure and fearlessness against elite opponents. His eight career wins against a No. 1 player—the most for any man not ranked No. 1—attested to that. “Delpo is not afraid of the big moment and the big stage,” ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe noted before the BNP Paribas Open final at Indian Wells.

The renaissance of Roger during the past 15 months parallels that of Delpo. Like Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, only the portrait of Federer ages. Never Roger. At 36, he glides around the court as gracefully as he did at 26. “The incredible thing about Federer is how well he continues to move. Nobody has ever been able to dominate in their mid-30s in the history of tennis the way Roger Federer has been able to do,” McEnroe said. Fed’s first serve still packs a big punch, often exceeding 120 mph, and his second serve kicks higher than ever. His nonpareil shot-making from every spot on the court remains breathtakingly dazzling. Even his improved backhand produces occasional winners.

For those who thought the incomparable Federer couldn’t get any better, his perfect 17-0 start this year surpassed his brilliant start last year and marked his best in 12 years. His career 18-6 record over Del Potro included his winning five of their last six encounters. Even so, Federer’s revealed his high regard for the Argentine, saying, “He’s playing like the olden days again. He’s hitting his two-handed backhand better.” Not only better, but just as important, more often.

Going for his sixth Indian Wells and 28th Masters title, Federer inexplicably self-destructed in the sixth game to lose his serve at love. Two unforced errors on his forehand in the net were especially shocking. That fiasco gave away the first set, 6-4, to Del Potro, who dropped only six points in five service games.

In the super-close second set, Del Potro became increasingly angry at Federer partisans cheering while he was serving. During the tiebreaker, he testily complained to the chair umpire, who had tried unsuccessfully to quiet the spectators. The Argentine may appear easygoing, but he was battling to win his first Masters event after 11 years on the tour.

Federer, fuming after losing a player challenge for 3-all and double faulting on his third set point to make it 6-all, then complained to Delpo about his complaining and barked at the umpire. Delpo earned a championship point at 8-7 only to blow it with an unforced forehand error.

Despite pulling out the tiebreaker 10-8 to even the match, Federer did not have history on his side. He had lost the last eight tournament finals in which he lost the first set. He also had a dismal 1-7 record in final set tiebreakers, if it came to that.

Delpo had held serve for an impressive 32 straight times when Federer stepped up his offense to break him for 5-4 and serve for the championship. Bizarrely, Fed self-destructed again. He blew two of his three championship points with terrible shot selection: drop shots, one landing in the bottom of the net, and the other near the service line, which Delpo easily put away. Del Potro capitalised and blasted a 105-mph forehand winner to break serve for 5-5.

With everyone expecting a thrilling tiebreaker to decide the evenly contested and high-calibre final, Federer cracked under the pressure — again. Shockingly, two double faults and two unforced forehand errors did him in. Del Potro easily grabbed the tiebreaker 7-2 for a 6-4, 6-7, 7-6 triumph.

Afterward, the flummoxed Federer said, “I would like to play that tiebreaker again because I don’t know what the hell happened.” No one else did either.

Hinting that he choked, Fed added, “People like to see the easy part, how I make it look easy. It’s not always that. For nobody it’s like that at the top.” Not even for the 20-time major winner and consensus GOAT.

In his 51st attempt, the hard-hitting but also high-percentage Del Potro finally won a Masters title. “I’m still shaking,” he told the crowd. “It’s like a dream. It’s amazing.”