Coach creates keener, leaner Kasatkina

LOS ANGELES • Philippe Dehaes, Daria Kasatkina's new and understandably delighted Belgian coach, was swinging an imaginary racket in the players' lounge this week.

He was demonstrating what he wants her to avoid - a typical tennis player's ideal hitting zone, which is mid-hip to just below the shoulder.

"Dasha can decide," he said, using Kasatkina's nickname. "She can put the ball high, low, slow, short, whatever she wants, but she cannot hit the ball to those girls so they can hit it here."

This is, of course, more difficult than it seems.

Controlled power typically trumps finesse in women's tennis. See Serena Williams' results over the past 20 years or, for a more recent example, Jelena Ostapenko's big-swinging and risk-ignoring upset of Simona Halep in last year's French Open final.

But an antidote appears to be brewing, and Kasatkina, a 20-year-old Russian, is a big part of the mix.

She has power, as anyone who has watched her rip a topspin forehand can attest. But she also has a wide array of solutions and strokes, including wicked drop shots, and a gift for rhythm shifts that practically borders on the musical.

She is amid a hot streak and in the final of the Indian Wells Masters after consecutive victories over US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Australian Open winner Caroline Wozniacki, and former world No. 1s Angelique Kerber and Venus Williams.

"She outsmarted me today, which is fair enough," Wozniacki said after her loss on Tuesday.

She is hardly alone.

Kasatkina also beat Ostapenko in the third round of last year's US Open and defeated Garbine Muguruza, the reigning Wimbledon champion and former world No. 1, on her way to the final in Dubai last month.

That means that since September, Kasatkina has beaten all four reigning Major champions.

She also beat Halep, the reigning world No. 1, in Wuhan, China, last September.

"In the beginning, it was really tough because I was really nervous going on the big stages, on the big courts against the big players," she said. "But now with experience, with the time, I'm getting into it."

A win for the world No. 19 in today's final (tomorrow morning, Singapore time) will move her into the top 10 for the first time.

Insiders already know she is a big-time talent, but outsiders will soon figure out that she is an entertainer as well.

"When people will see her regularly in the Grand Slams, they are really going to gravitate to her because her game is really atypical," said Dehaes, who first saw Kasatkina in December 2013.

"She likes the show. She likes the jump backhands, the drop shots. She plays this way naturally, but it's festive tennis. I insist on leaving her a lot of freedom when she plays, but she has to create, has to make things happen, really like an artist.

"I compared it to an empty canvas a few days ago, and I said she can make whatever art on that canvas that she wants as long as it's beautiful."

For now, Kasatkina has yet to get past the fourth round at a Major, but if she can remain healthy and in form, her game should translate well to clay and the French Open.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 18, 2018, with the headline 'Coach creates keener, leaner Kasatkina'. Subscribe