ITW Daria Kasatkina: "I want to do better at the big events"

 - Reem Abulleil

Last year's RG semi-finalist aiming for consistency at the majors

Daria Kasatkina - Demi-finale Roland-Garros 2022©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

Daria Kasatkina started the year with a goal to do better at the bigger tournaments.

Back inside the top 10 after a statement 2022 that saw her record her best Grand Slam result to date – a run to the Roland-Garros semi-finals – she had high hopes for the 2023 Australian Open.

The 25-year-old had already made the final in her second tournament of the year in Adelaide, beating two major champions along the way in Barbora Krejcikova and Petra Kvitova, and was looking forward to doing well at Melbourne Park.

Unfortunately, luck was not her side and her Australian Open first round kept getting pushed back because of weather conditions – first for the heat, then for the rain. When she finally took to the court more than 24 hours after the scheduled time of her match, the eighth-seeded Kasatkina lost 6-1, 6-1 to Varvara Gracheva. Her Grand Slam was over in under an hour.

“For me it was tough to handle being two days focused waiting for my match. My opponent maybe had a little bit less pressure, but anyway she handled the situation better. You always learn from these things,” Kasatkina told at the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open last week.

“Many athletes show how they can be stronger in their minds, I’m still on the way.”

Daria Kasatkina / Demi-finale Roland-Garros 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Kasatkina didn’t dwell on the defeat too much, but admits it stung given how much she’d like to perform better at the Slams.

“As always, 30 minutes crying in the shower and next day it’s a bit better,” she explained.

“You’re empty but still it takes one or two days after losses like this, tournaments like this.

“Anyway you always have expectations, you want to win, in the big tournaments especially, I have a goal, I realised I can do much better on the big events and of course it’s a goal; plus it’s a little bit of pressure and of course when you didn’t do as you wanted, as you prepared, of course you’re disappointed and it takes a few days.

“But it’s normal. Almost like a break-up, you need a little bit of time to recover and start to love the things you do again.”

Kasatkina has come a long way since she cracked the top 10 for the first time at the end of 2018. She was an alternate at the WTA Finals that season but struggled in her following campaign and even considered quitting tennis.

The pressure of expectations got to her and she lost passion for the game for a while before deciding to fight back. It was a long journey but in 2022, Kasatkina’s efforts paid off, as she made the final four in Rome and at Roland-Garros, won two titles, and qualified for the WTA Finals as a top-eight player.

As a person who knows what it’s like to battle past one’s own demons, Kasatkina felt special appreciation towards Aryna Sabalenka’s journey from her serving woes that plagued her 2022 to becoming a Grand Slam champion at the Australian Open last month.

“I don’t know if for example people outside of tennis see it or not, but we are here and see everything inside, you could clearly see that she’s doing 1000 percent of the effort for her to win a Slam,” Kasatkina said of Sabalenka.

“It’s a very important thing and she was talking about it many times. You could see in the previous Slams how important it was to her that sometimes she was too tight because it’s very important. It’s normal, if you want something so badly you get nervous. You could see when she won it was like the backpack went out.

“She completely deserves this one. She’s one of the biggest hard-workers on tour.”

Aryna Sabalenka / Finale Open d'Australie 2023©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Kasatkina giggles when she’s asked if she finds Sabalenka’s career arc inspiring, noting how it’s tricky to make such public admissions about a fellow competitor, but she acknowledged how all players have been pushing each other to reach new heights.

“In this way, I have to say thanks to Anett (Kontaveit), for example, because we are friends, so I can say it. She was No.2, top 10 last year, this thing pushed me a lot because I wanted that as well. I was like, ‘it’s not that far’,” said Kasatkina.

“Because it’s one thing when you are upcoming, young, and you see Angelique Kerber, Simona Halep and Serena Williams at the top, you think it’s way too far, they are too good. But when you see the players you were growing up together, who you were competing shoulder to shoulder, or even beating them, and then you see them winning big titles or being good in the ranking, you think actually it’s not that far, maybe I can do it. This is how it works.”

The dynamic on the WTA tour changes ever so rapidly. It wasn’t too long ago when it felt like the women’s game followed an ‘Iga Swiatek vs Rest of the Field’ narrative. The reigning Roland-Garros and US Open champion seemed unstoppable and has built up a healthy lead at the top of the world rankings, finishing 2022 with more points than the world’s No.2 and No.3 combined.

But just a few weeks into the 2023 campaign, the landscape looks a bit different with the likes of Sabalenka, Australian Open beaten finalist Elena Rybakina, and others like Jessica Pegula and Victoria Azarenka all showing great form in January.

“If you have the eyes, you see clearly that Iga, especially in one part of the (2022) season, she was not losing at all. So it’s obvious she was dominating in that moment,” said Kasatkina, weighing in on the shifting dynamics on tour.

“But we are humans. Also other players are improving, they want to win. If you’re winning everything you have pressure because everyone is expecting you to win. It’s normal that, not just her, but the player cannot win everything – except Rafa, Roger, Novak… but I mean Iga still has very good statistics, incredible statistics.

“It’s a game, everyone wants to win. It’s not like a 100m sprint, where okay you’re the best runner, you have the best time and you have the best time, that’s it. It’s a game, everyone wants to win and it’s very competitive and we have this run every single week, don’t forget it, it’s tough.”

Kasatkina has fond memories from Paris last year, where she blasted through the Roland-Garros draw, reaching the semis without dropping a set.

“I didn’t have very difficult matches so I didn’t spend too much energy on the court, which is a very important thing,” she said, reflecting on her run on the terre battue.

“I realised that the easier you win your matches, it’s better for you, you feel much fresher for the next match.”

Kasatkina arrived in Paris last year carrying lots of confidence from her semi-final showing in Rome, where she held match point against Ons Jabeur before bowing out. It was a win over Paula Badosa that week that really bolstered her self-belief.

“I cannot say I was feeling incredible at Roland-Garros or I was playing amazing. No, it was decent matches I won and actually maybe it’s the best part, because to be honest I feel like, if we take Djokovic for example, this is how he won most of his tournaments, not just Slams, maybe he had very tough sometimes first round or finals, but if you take the tournament in general, it’s just decent matches.

Daria Kasatkina, demi-finales, Roland-Garros 2022©Nicolas Gouhier / FFT

“He’s winning – my coach calls them ‘partido comercial’, commercial match, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3, it’s like a little bit of fight but he won and everyone knew he was going to win.

“So I think it’s important to save energy and until the semi-final was kind of like this.”

Kasatkina has no idea how she will feel when she returns to Roland-Garros this spring but hopes she can recapture that special form that got her through all those ‘partidos comerciales’.

“Of course it’s one of my favourite Slams, clay, and I will do all the best I can,” she added.

“But you never know, you cannot expect yourself to just go and win even if you were prepared very well or you played good last year. No it doesn’t work like that unfortunately.

“Thankfully we have a lot of weeks, a lot of tournaments where you can still recover all this before Paris comes around.”

Daria Kasatkina, demi-finales, Roland-Garros 2022©Corinne Dubreuil / FFT