WHOEVER PLAYS LESS TERRIBLE: After two sets of the Sam Querrey-Milos Raonic match, Raonic’s seen-it-all coach, Goran Ivanisevic, said on television that the quarterfinal was a bad match to watch, and it would be won by whoever plays “less terrible.”
ANIMALISTIC COMMENTARY OF THE WEEK: A press room exchange on Juan Martin del Potro concluded when a grizzled reporter sighed and said, “Oh, he’s just a big teddy bear.”
OF DASHA, MASHA, MISCHA, SASHA AND SASCHA: Now that the rising Russian star Daria Kasatkina has declared that she wishes to be known as Dasha, allow us to note that Maria Sharapova is, of course, known as Masha. Then there’s Mischa Zverev and his brother Sasha Zverev, American Sasha Vickery and Naomi Osaka’s storied coach, Sascha Bajin.
DARIA KASATKINA – THE MOMENT OF MY LIFE: The battle was fierce, the contrasts clear. On Indian Wells’ Stadium 1 was one of the great legends in all of sports. Venus Williams, the tall, lean, striking figure we know so well, has won seven Slams and about $400 million. Opposite her was a far lesser-known warrior, a twenty-year-old Russian with a superb game, filled with fearless guile, appealing variety, punishing topspin and enough power to be rather a bother. Daria (“call me Dasha”) Kasatkina is ranked No. 19. She seemed like a top-tenner – maybe even better. Earlier in the tourney she’d schooled the last two Grand Slam champs – Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki – without dropping a set. Then in the quarterfinals she humbled former Aussie and US Open champ Angie Kerber 6-0, 6-2 in 58 minutes – what a run.
In the first set of the women’s semis, in which Venus was hoping to be just the second American to reach the Indian Wells final in 12 years, the American blasted her forehand, hit unsparing overheads and showed a deft touch as she prevailed 6-4 in a set featuring seven breaks of serve and many momentum changes. Then Dasha’s coach, Philippe Dehaes, reminded her that Venus is 37 and she is 20. “So make her work. You agree with me, yes? So I go back to my office and sit.”
So the Russian, who was barely born when Venus first reached the Indian Wells semis, prevailed in the second set, 6-4. Then it was the turn of Venus’ coach, David Witt, to offer advice. He told her it was critical to break out fast in the deciding third set. Williams promptly broke Dasha’s serve.
But Kasatkina, who won in Charleston last spring, is a rare talent. Displaying backhand pokes, nasty drop shots, mean slices, an easy corner-to-corner athleticism, fine defense and the mental strength of a Russian toughened by dark days and frigid winters, she took advantage of Venus’ sub-par serving and broke back.
But Venus is an elder warrior who’s endured battles like few others. So she charged the net, unleashed her forehand, hit stretch volleys with her astounding reach, broke serve and was up 5-4, just a game from victory in a match that had stunning points, marathon 22-point games and the most drama of any match since the Aussie Open. Then Kasatkina muffed a backhand and made a hash of drop shot to give Venus a 30-0 lead. Now surely Venus, just two points from victory, would power her way to Saturday’s final. What a story line!
Wrong. The veteran of Slam finals, battles for Olympic gold and struggles for good health blinked. She hit both a return and a forehand long. The wheels came off. In the blink of an eye she’d lost eight of ten points. The 37-year-old, after nearly three hours of play, had to be exhausted. Now, we wondered, will a Williams again win this tourney? They haven’t since 2001. And afterwards, Williams showed her core attitude: Losing is not an option. Sullen and grim, she commented, “I’m not happy…Anyone who gets used to losses should give up on life.” Wow – that’s fierce.
In contrast, Dasha was giddy and full of jokes in her presser. She told writers, “This will be the worst interview!” She then told IT that her greatest strength was her “fighting spirit,” which she said comes “from cold Russia. We are always unhappy. We are strong mentally.”
And indeed, it is a time of strength for rising WTA youngsters. Just nine months after twenty-year-old Jelena Ostapenka won the French Open, two twenty-year-olds, Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka (who easily thumped Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0) will face each other in the finals. Dasha asserted, “We are coming,” clearly relishing the abundant magic of a very hot match on a cold night. “Sometimes I was even smiling on court…You just catch yourself…You’re in night session, all crowd, you’re playing against a legend and you are [in] the third set…and you’re like, maybe it’s the moment of my life.”
POP QUIZ: Who has a more striking wave of black hair – young Taylor Fritz or veteran Milos Raonic?
MESSY DIALOG: After Milos Raonic reeled off some of his many injuries over the past 16 months, a writer quipped, “It sounds like a mess.” Raonic replied, “It’s been a catastrophe.”
SOME DAY IT MIGHT JUST HAPPEN: After winning their semifinal match, the Bryan brothers and two of their darling kids hit about 150 balls into the crowd and delighted the throng for about 15 feel-good minutes. All this prompted one wise guy in the press room to ask, “When are those guys gonna come out of their shell?” The Bryans will face fellow Americans Jack Sock and John Isner in the final. Three of the four finalists were collegiate champs.
COURAGEOUS RUSSIAN: Vladimir Putin uses athletes to promote himself in Russian politics. Former two-time Slam champ Marat Safin is in Putin’s party and is a member of the Politboro, where he votes Putin’s line. And, according to Jon Wertheim, the NHL’s Alex Ovechkin has thrown his support behind Putin and even initiated a “Putin Team” campaign on social media. But two-time Slam champ Yevgeny Kafelnikov has openly opposed Putin and, along with many other foes of the Russian establishment, will not be voting in an upcoming Russian election that they contend is unfair and rigged.
VICKERY AT SEA: After not getting a wildcard into the Miami Open, Sasha Vickery tweeted: “I was born and raised in Miami and grew up playing at Crandon Park, [and] I’ve also had decent results this year. Very disappointing.” The 22-year-old beat two-time Slam winner Garbine Muguruza at Indian Wells.
TOUCHÉ: When Chris Evert asked Pam Shriver, “Does anyone over six feet move as well as Venus?” Shriver replied, “Federer.”