Kasatkina Makes History Again

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Daria Kasatkina and Natalia Zabiiako. Photos by Harjanto Sumali

Bill Simons

San Jose

In culture and everyday life, the Bay Area is the world’s leading center for gay rights and living. The Castro neighborhood, pride parades, pioneer Harvey Milk, gay poliiticians, important laws and leaders and an open, diverse vibe have long been core dynamics of the region. The Bay Area is special and so is its tennis.

Fifty-one years ago, Billie Jean King founded the longest running women’s tennis tournament in the world. She won here three times, was the first woman star to reveal she’d had an abortion and she was forced out of the closet 41 years ago. Martina Navratilova (who won the tourney a record six times) openly stated she was gay. It cost each of them millions. 

Just a few weeks ago there was another significant gay development. Daria Kasatkina, No. 12 in the world, who reached the French semis in June, just over two weeks ago announced that she was gay. Today she came from behind to score a gutsy 6-7 (2), 6-1, 6-2 win over Shelby Rogers to win the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

In mid-July she made an even more gutsy move. She told a Russian blogger that she’s in a relationship with the mixed pair figure skater Natalia Zabiiako. She said that they could never be pictured holding hands in Russia and that living there, in the closet, was impossible. 

Russia has been cracking down on gays and may be going further. Their parliamentary speaker recently said that now that Russia has left Europe’s Human Rights Council, it would be able to ban the promotion of “non-traditional values.” He commented, “Attempts to impose alien values on our society have failed.”

Kasatkina also said the Ukraine war was “a full-blown nightmare” and asserted that its end was what she wants the most in her life right now. She added that she wanted to play and train with players who don’t have to worry about being bombed. 

One important Russian blogger asserted that Kasatkina’s announcing she was gay was “the first time in our history that an undisputed sports star has come out. And in Putin’s Russia, sport is always political.” 

No kidding. And it’s no accident that after Wimbledon banned Russians, their well-motivated players have surged. The Moscow-born Khazakh Elina Rybakina won Wimbledon. Daniil Medvedev took Los Cabos, and in DC, Andrey Rublev reached the semis and Ludmilla Samsonova won.

Last year at the Mubadala Classic, Kasatkina lost the final to a veteran from the American southeast, Floridian Danielle Collins. At first it seemed as if the Russian would again fall in the final. On court we heard little of the “Whop! Pow!” so common in WTA battles these days. Often there is silence to Daria’s serve and strokes. Her shots don’t go backwards, as France’s Harmony Tan’s appear to do – it just seems that way. About 15% of her serves are less than 60 mph and aren’t announced on the speed gun. “That was a dumb serve,” said a six-year-old boy in Section 213. But you don’t reach the French Open semis if you’re an airhead. Daria’s a fighter – a mover whose anticipation is uncanny. 

She broke to go up 2-1 in the first set. Then she and Shelby traded breaks. Rogers blasted an overhead. Daria held fast and unleashed a backhand down the line. But Rogers, who had trained hard since losing in the first round at Wimbledon and was playing in her first final since 2016, was battling hard and blasting winners. She’d beaten a string of greats this week: 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, world No. 3 Maria Sakkari, Wimbledon quarterfinalist Amanda Anisimova and No. 19, Russian Veronika Kudermetova. Rogers saved a set point.

Then the South Carolinian, whose hair was in a tight bun, played with ease at crunch time. She’d said she felt “calm and gracious” this week. And she performed that way in the tiebreak, as she took advantage of a simple backhand error from Kasatkina and yet another inexplicable double fault from the Russian.

Rogers then opened the court and blasted a forehand winner to score a commanding 7-2 tiebreak win.

Never mind that Shelby is No. 45 in the world, her highest ranking ever is 36 and only once has she reached the quarterfinals of a major. She now seemed en route to her first ever WTA title.

But one thing we know about Kasatkina: the 25-year-old knows how to deal with adversity.

Rogers later said that Daria re-set, probably thought of last year and got more aggressive. In two fateful minutes Rogers lost her concentration. She hit a sloppy drop shot, shanked a backhand and botched a swinging volley. Daria broke easily, went up 3-1 in the second set and turned a once compelling drama into a Russian runaway. Kasatkina won seven straight games. Rogers struggled in a wind that battered the flag above the Smoking Pig BBQ tent. In mid-trajectory some shots veered off and seemed to head to Fremont. Clearly the wind helped the shorter, fleeter, more defensive player with more compact strokes and greater margins of error. Rogers squandered three key break points in the second set. Then again, Rogers told Inside Tennis that Daria “is really tricky – she’s really crafty. She uses spins and mixes up speeds and just makes you very uncomfortable…She moves really well and it’s just tough to find your own game…She was very confident..this weekend and…threw [in] the kitchen sink.”

After her 2:32 runaway victory, Daria fell on her back in joy, just 35 yards from the huge images of Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova on the tournament’s Wall of Fame. No, neither of the icons offered a wink, but they had to be proud. Kasatkina told the crowd, “I want to wish you, everyone, a lot of love, happiness and … peace in this world.” 

Many now wonder if Kasatkina, who is now No. 9 and is based in Spain, will be able to returen to Russia, where it is illegal to criticize the Ukrainian war. Daria put her tumultuous times in perspective: “It’s been a tough journey which is still going on.” She added, “I’m happy with the way things are going…but I don’t want to stop.” As for coming out, she confided, “In some ways it’s helping me mentally but I don’t think that there is a direct connection [to winning].

As for the future, she said “my goals are something bigger because only the kids who are dreaming big [succeed]…I’m dreaming to win a Slam…I will do everything possible to achieve history.”

She already has.

Shelby Rogers’ fan

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