INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- As the buzzer was sounding on the biggest upset in men's NCAA tournament history Friday night, another giant-killer was stepping up to make history of her own. Down 5-4 in the third set of the semifinals at Indian Wells and facing love-30, 20-year-old Daria Kasatkina was two points from seeing her incredible, improbable run in the BNP Paribas Open come to an end.
On the other side of the net was seven-time Grand Slam champ Venus Williams, who looked every bit as fit and fiery as Kasatkina throughout the nearly three-hour match. Surely this was a time when experience would win.
"I didn't feel nervous," Kasatkina said of the moment before her next serve. "I knew what to do. It was the most important part of the match."
The crowd, vocally in support of Williams all night, was electric, certain they were about to witness the stoic veteran take the next two points and march into Sunday's final. But that, as they say, is why they play the game. Kasatkina did not bend to the pressure. She was cool, calm and showed no sign of nerves as she took the next four points to even the set at 5-all. Then she won the next two games and the biggest match of her career, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5.
"Maybe one of the best nights in my life, for sure," she said. "It was pretty emotional."
When asked in the postmatch press conference how she has summoned the mental strength to play with such maturity and confidence over the past six months, the most successful run of her young career, Kasatkina, 17 years Williams' junior, credited her Russian upbringing. "I'm from cold Russia," she said, smiling. "We are always unhappy. We are strong mentally."
But you are smiling right now, Daria. You don't seem unhappy.
"When we are winning, we are pretty happy," she said, smiling again. "Sometimes I was even smiling on the court. Like, in one moment you catch yourself. You're in a night session, you're playing against a legend and you are in the third set. You're like, 'Come on, maybe it's the moment of your life.' To play Venus Williams on center court in the United States, in the semifinals, one of the biggest tournaments, you just put your heart out there."Daria Kasatkina continued a string of beating the game's elite players by taking out Venus Williams at Indian Wells. Harry How/Getty Images
After digging out from that love-30 hole, Kasatkina looked over at her player's box and pointed to her heart, a motion to let her coach know that she was going to leave everything on the court. That's been a theme for the Russian at this tournament, where she's outperformed anyone's expectations, even those she placed on herself.
In the past six days, she's won four straight matches over top-15 Grand Slam champions. After beating Katerina Siniakova in the round of 64, Kasatkina beat 2017 US Open champ Sloane Stephens, 2018 Australian Open champ Caroline Wozniacki, two-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber and Williams, in that order.
Before last year's US Open, Kasatkina had never made it past the third round at a Grand Slam. But her performance at Flushing Meadows kicked off what has been a spectacular six months. Unfamiliar with her recent success? Here's a brief history.
Sept. 2, 2017: Beats No. 12 Jelena Ostapenko in the round of 32 at the US Open.
Sept. 26, 2017: Beats current No. 1 Simona Halep 6-2, 6-1 in the round of 32 in Wuhan, China.
Feb. 2, 2018: Beats Wozniacki in the quarters in St. Petersburg.
March 2018: Beats four of the best players in the world to make the final at Indian Wells, where she will face fellow 20-year-old Naomi Osaka, who beat Halep 6-3, 6-0 in the semis in a match that took only 63 minutes to complete. Both women head into Sunday's final having dropped only one set all tournament. play 0:21 Venus falls in semis at Indian Wells
Venus Williams upset by Daria Kasatkina, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, in the semifinals of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells.
"She's playing really well," Kasatkina said of Osaka. "She's hitting hard. She has a good serve. She's improving so much, so she's a really dangerous player. I have to be really focused on the next match, not thinking about the future. I will try to forget this match [against Williams]. Today that is not possible, but tomorrow, for sure."
Speaking of tomorrow, Sunday's match looks very much like a preview of the future of the women's tour, if the culmination of the past 10 days in the desert tells us anything.
"We are coming," Kasatkina said of the next generation of young players. "Very soon."