Reflections on Courage and Creativity

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Bill Simons

Indian Wells

DARIA KASATKINA – A PROFILE IN COURAGE: Dasha Kasatkina isn’t big – just 5’7”. She doesn’t have monster strokes, she doesn’t blow you off the court. 

If you were allowed to say such things, you might note she’s kind of cute. The Russian loves to laugh and chat about this and that. Plus, she’s an ice cream connoisseur and kills it on social media.

In other words, you think, ‘What a fun, nice young person.’

But the world No. 12 player is about as brave as you get. 

In her homeland, which criminalizes same sex relations (just ask the rock group, Pussy Riot) she came out of the closet. In a country that cracks down on free speech and dissidents, and where you can’t even use the word “war,” Kasatkina, more than any other Russian tennis player, came out against the Ukrainian war. 

She retweeted the defiant post of Yulia Navalnaya after her husband, Russia’s prime dissident, was murdered. And, with her girlfriend, Natalia Zabiioka, the Olympic ice skating silver medalist, she fled Russia.

And while others are eager to earn some of Saudi Arabia’s deep-pocket money, Kasatkina doesn’t want the WTA to have anything to do with the kingdom’s problematic sportswashing.

The WTA has a long and now familiar line-up of trailblazers, from Althea Gibson, Billie Jean King and the Williamses to Naomi Osaka, Ons Jabeur and Elina Svitolina. These days, Kasatkina is one of the most courageous players in tennis.

But Dasha is quiet and laid back. She hardly is an in-your-face rabble-rouser who’s eager to get her pals to storm the barricades. She makes her point and leaves it at that. She rarely offers deep explanations and never proselytizes. “She’s a rebel without a peep,” said one observer.

Yesterday, after Inside Tennis asked Daria where she got her courage, she replied, “I always wanted everything to be fair in this life, which is obviously impossible, of course…My parents and the people around me were always teaching me to play fair. You have to respect your opponents. That’s how I grew up…I’ve always had it within.”

Then we asked Daria if there’s much hope for freedom in Russia: “My heart is saying yes, my brain is saying no. But I will always believe there’s a chance for a better life. You always need to have hope. Even if there’s just 1% you need to look in that direction and maybe one day it will change. I really hope.”

GAEL MONFILS – ‘THE MOST POWERFUL THING YOU CAN DO:’ Ukrainian Elina Svitolina is another woman who’s shown courage. Frenchman Gael Monfils reflected on his wife’s integrity, saying, “There’s so much value in taking a stance. It’s tempting to always take the middle ground and stay neutral, not risk offending anyone…But sometimes, when it really matters, taking a strong position is the most powerful thing you can do, if only for yourself. Standing firm for what you believe definitely opens you up to criticism, but in the end, it gives you a sense of integrity and alignment…That’s a lesson in courage that I admire so much.”

Monfils said he got his courage from his parents: “They always taught me to believe what I’m doing, to educate myself on everything and have my own opinions.”

NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FEAR ITSELF: When asked what was his best and most important quality, 22-year-old Jannik Sinner replied, “I have a lot of respect for all of the players, but I don’t have fear of facing them. I think that’s also an [important] quality, because, especially when I play pressure points…I still like to go for the shots. I don’t wait to see what my opponent does.

“I realized when I skied that I feared downhill races. When you go very fast and then you jump 20, 30 meters, it’s different…[But] in tennis, it’s nothing to be scared about, no? It’s only a match…We try our best, and sometimes it goes in a good way and sometimes not…But in the end, you just lose the match.”

Sinner, who tonight beat American Ben Shelton, 7-6, 6-2, has now won 18 straight matches.

BRILLIANT BRANDING: Have any other tournaments had more successful nicknames than the Australian Open, that’s called the Happy Slam, or the BNP Paribas Open, that brilliantly brands itself as Tennis Paradise?

THE QUIET, CHARMED WORLD OF LOVELY LADY LINDSAY: Brett Haber said Lindsay Davenport’s Tennis Channel commentary was charmed. But the appealing, self-deprecating California broadcaster was having none of it. One of the most beloved figures in American tennis, she joked, “That’s the first time I’ve heard charmed in the same sentence with my name.” But, truth be told, our notebooks are crammed with references to the fun-loving, modest and giving Davenport, who famously wrote thank you letters to tournament directors and who, after winning the US Open, decided not to go on the David Letterman Show because she didn’t want to be teased. It was once noted that Davenport beat Vera Zvonareva “in less time than it takes Agassi to comb his hair.” 

Martina Hingis said Lindsay was “the most underrated No. 1 ever.” Often she didn’t get much coverage. Then again, Lindsay joked that if she were a journalist, she wouldn’t cover herself. Long ago, she let her fellow tennis stars have it, saying, “Most of the great players are a-holes or bitches.” 

With a twinkle in her eye, Lindsay said that Coco Vandeweghe “reminds me of myself. Very tall, very humble, very intelligent.” She observed that tennis players “get criticized for showing no personality, then get penalized when we do.” 

It was Pam Shriver who said, “Davenport’s parents are my favorite parents on the tour – because I’ve never met Lindsay Davenport’s parents.”

Not to go “ova” the top with all this, but once, before her first-round match against Lubomira Kurhajcova, Davenport said, “I know that I play someone [whose name] starts with a ‘K’ and ends with an ‘ova.’” 

Finally, let’s reference the most ballsy commentary in tennis history. When Davenport was asked what it’s like to autograph one of those oversized balls, she said, “Oh, it’s so much easier. I always gravitate toward them. The [regular] ball is so small. It’s hard to get your grip on it. Those big ones are round – no problem.”

ARYNA SABALENKA: ‘I’M A BARBIE:’ Fun-loving Aryna Sabalenka tried to explain an on-court incident with the umpire when she briefly lost it and offered some choice words. She explained, “I was just like, you’re pissed and you’re just, ‘Fuck this shit.’ I was just, like, ‘Come on. You could have, like, ignored that.’”

She then asked herself, “Did I really say that, ‘Fuck this shit?’ I did it again. Well, fuck this shit. Oh, my God. I mean, someone has to be stupid. I take this role. I’m a Barbie. Okay.” 

TSITSIPAS’S LETTER TO INDIAN WELLS: A while ago, Stefanos Tsitsipas wrote a letter to tennis in which he thanked the sport for providing him with a playground that gave him so much freedom.  So we decided to ask the Greek to write a letter to Indian Wells. With little hesitation, this is what he came up with:

“Dear Indian Wells, Thanks for creating it. You’ve been mean to me in the past, but I still have lots of love for you, and I’m here to make up and create good memories together. So please give me your love, give me your full support, and I’m sure I’m going to be your special one.”

He wasn’t. He was drubbed this afternoon by Czech Jiri Lehecka, the No. 32 seed, 6-2, 6-4.

A DIALOGUE ON CREATIVITY: Gael Monfils is a sublime showman who relishes creativity. So we asked the Frenchman, “Who have been the most creative players you’ve seen or played against, whether it’s Roger Federer or Nick Kyrgios?”

He replied, “Everybody has his own way to create. With Roger it’s the way he was positioning himself on court, the way he went for some shots and the tactics he used. This was magical, the way he would create and generate angles with sharpness. He got close to the baseline, played volleys, and that was beautiful.” 

As for Aussie Nick Kyrgios, Gael said he so admires Nick’s “vibe on court, the way he’s serving and creating. When you play him, you’re always a little bit on your back foot, because he is so good, he creates so much that you don’t know what to expect. 

“I love that, because it’s quite tough to read his powerful shots. He can create pace from anywhere. And he has that ability to read the game. People don’t understand Nick. His reading of the game is crazy.”

BATTLE REPORT: In a battle of the mums, Caroline Wozniaki beat her longtime friend and fellow mother Angie Kerber, to reach the quarters. In the battle of the Alex’s, German Alexander Zverev beat Aussie Alex di Minaur.

SAY IT ISN’T SO: In her last match as a teen, Coco Gauff, who turns 20 Wednesday, hit two double faults, and she and her partner, Jessica Pegula, promptly lost.

QUADFEST: Going back to Guillermo Vilas, there have been countless pros who’ve shown off fabulous thighs, and recently there have been plenty of others with hefty quads: Think Rafa Nadal, Carlos Alacaraz, Fernando Verdasco and Marton Fucsovics. The other day Holger Rune posted a leggy picture of himself with Djokovic. When asked who had the best leg muscles in the game, he said, “I would back myself, not just on the look but also on the court.” 

Also reporting: Vinay Venkatesh

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