LOS ANGELES • The start of Indian Wells may have been dominated by the return of Serena Williams after a 14-month motherhood hiatus, but it will end with the birth of a new generation of women tennis players knocking at the door of the elite.
Youth prevailed on Friday night after unseeded Naomi Osaka and world No. 19 Daria Kasatkina of Russia, both 20, reached the final at the expense of world No. 1 Simona Halep and Venus Williams.
The losing semi-finalists have a combined age of 63.
Osaka made short work of Halep, racing to a 6-3, 6-0 victory to set up today's (tomorrow morning, Singapore time) clash against Kasatkina, who continued her sparkling run of form after outlasting American veteran Williams 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in a slugfest lasting almost three hours.
The upset of the top-seeded Halep stood out as the bigger of the two surprises, with the Romanian having won all three of their previous meetings. Looking poised to make a run to reclaim the title she won in 2015, she instead put up a performance full of uncharacteristic errors and showed little fight.
In her post-match interview, Osaka sounded a warning that she and her peers were ready to challenge the established order.
"I feel like there is a new generation and we are trying to push through," said the Japanese.
The match started as a cagey affair until it reached 3-3 in the opening set, when Halep's game unravelled as she coughed up a litany of errors, paving the way for Osaka to reel off the next nine games.
"It wasn't easy," Osaka said in a courtside interview. "I was really stressed out the entire time but I am really happy I could end it fast."
Halep offered few excuses.
"I just didn't feel the ball. I was out of the game today. I played okay until 4-3 but then I just went out. I don't know why. I just lost my concentration," the 26-year-old said.
"She was better. She was more prepared and she was ready to play and ready to win the match."
While Osaka barely broke a sweat in her 64-minute victory, it was a different story for Kasatkina, who emerged the victor after a marathon battle against Williams.
Kasatkina took advantage of a sub-par serving night from the more powerful Williams as the match progressed, forcing long rallies that ultimately wore her 37-year-old opponent down.
She also sealed the biggest win of her career, extending a year-long assault on top players, Grand Slam winners and former world No. 1s.
"I'm a bit tired," she said after the 2hr 50min encounter.
"Maybe one of the best nights in my life, for sure... One more to go."
She also alluded to her age, which gave her the willpower to take Williams the distance and breaking her serve seven times in total.
The win extends the fairy-tale run for the tournament's 20th seed, who also defeated Grand Slam champions Sloane Stephens, Caroline Wozniacki and Angelique Kerber without dropping a set.
Neither Kasatkina nor Osaka have much experience in big matches, with the latter's only career final coming in Tokyo in 2016.
Kasatkina's lone WTA singles title came in Charleston, South Carolina last year.
Asked what the final between two 20-year-olds would mean, Kasatkina said: "That we are coming (smiling). Very soon."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
ATP/WTA INDIAN WELLS
Women's final: StarHub Ch203, tomorrow, 2am Men's final: Ch201, tomorrow, 4am