Russia’s Daria Kasatkina couldn’t hide her emotions after lifting the Phillip Island Trophy in Melbourne, ending a two-year title drought dating back to 2018 with an emphatic win over Marie Bouzkova, 4-6 6-2 6-2, on Friday.
Tennis is a very competitive sport - it's very difficult because basically you're alone, it's not a team sport. I think kids can also start work with a psychologist from a young age. It will help them for sure not to face the big problems when they're 18 or 20. Daria Kasatkina
Unseeded, Kasatkina came through a tournament that gave a second opportunity to early losers at the Australian Open, and included 4 top 20 players in the field.
The WTA 250 event was set up to provide players eliminated during the first week of the year’s first major with some extra tournament match play to offset a 14-day COVID-19 quarantine in Melbourne.
In the semi-finals, Bouzkova beat 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu, who was among the 72 players forced into a hard lockdown after passengers on their charter flights to Australia later tested positive for the coronavirus.
Other Grand Slam title winners in the 64-player draw included 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and 2017 US Open winner Sloane Stephens.
Kasatkina took out Britain’s Katie Boulter, compatriots Varvara Gracheva and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the 7th-seed, Petra Martic, the No 4 seed from the Czech republic, and American Danielle Collins, the 8th seed before taking on the 13th-seeded Bouzkova in the final.
Bouzkova produced a fighting display on Friday but eventually ran out of gas, having come through a brutal 3-hour semi-final against the 2nd-seeded Andreescu the previous day.
The Czech called for the trainer midway through the second set and her energy levels visibly decreased as the match drew on.
Kasatkina, the World No 75, took full advantage, moving Bouzkova from side to side with heavy topspin to take control of rallies before delivering the knockout blow.
The 22-year-old Czech, in her second final and searching for her own maiden title after falling to Elina Svitolina in Monterrey last year, was far from her usual scampering self and was unable to keep pace.
Frequently, Bouzkova, the World No 50, could only watch as Kasatkina found the open court, including the knifed backhand slice winner with which the Russian sealed championship point.
Kasatkina, who was knocked out in the Australian Open second round by Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in straight sets, had rebounded to overcome 4 seeded opponents en route to her 3rd WTA title.
After the 23-year-old struck her last blow against the Czech to capture the trophy, she burst into tears, saying that the victory will give her the confidence she has lacked over the past years.
“Feels incredible, to be honest,” she said. “I felt like one big backpack with stones got out from my shoulders.”
Kasatkina needed an hour and 55 minutes to record the hard-fought win, hitting 35 winners and committing 25 unforced errors during the match in which she had to rally from a set down.
The former top 10 player was widely considered to be Russia’s next star before her results suddenly nosedived.
Her 2018 win at the Kremlin Cup was her last significant achievement and, after a 4-match losing streak at the start of 2019, Kasatkina sent herself into a downward spiral.
She also reached her first two Grand Slam quarter-finals that same year, at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, as well as finals in Dubai and Indian Wells.
Throughout what she would later call a ‘disaster’ of a 2019 season, her confidence in her game evaoprated and a meagre 13-21 win-loss record sent her ranking plummeting to World No 69 at the year-end.
In a bid to rediscover her form Kasatkina has been working with a psychologist since the start of last season.
“It took a lot of time to rebuild my game, to rebuild my confidence, to change myself. Finally I’m feeling good,” the 23-year-old said.
“I was working with a psychologist a lot. I learned that your confidence shouldn’t depend on your results.
“To lose one match doesn’t have to kill yourself from inside, so… I think that was the main thing.”
Amidst the pandemic, there were early signs that Kasatkina was beginning to find her game again.
A semi-final showing in Lyon just before the shutdown was her first since 2018 and, on resumption of the tour, an eye-catching run in Rome saw her in full flow against Victoria Azarenka in the third round when an ill-timed ankle injury halted that match.
Kasatkina’s win-loss record since Rome has been a healthy 18-6 and hoisting the Phillip Island Trophy after suffering an early AO exit will be a welcome Down Under confidence boost for the Russian.
“Tennis is a very competitive sport – it’s very difficult because basically you’re alone, it’s not a team sport,” Kasatkina said.
“I think kids can also start work with a psychologist from a young age. It will help them for sure not to face the big problems when they’re 18 or 20.”
The doubles final saw India’s Ankita Raina & Russia’s Kamilla Rakhimova both capture their maiden WTA title with a 2-6 6-4 [10-7] defeat of Anna Blinkova & Anastasia Potapova in an all-unseeded affair.
Raina & Rakhimova had both been part of the lucky loser cohort brought to Australia after losing in the 3rd round of AO qualifying in Dubai.
Neither made it into the main draw, but the pair were overjoyed to score this milestone instead, after reeling off the last 5 points of the match tiebreak.
“It was a funny one how we ended up together,” said Raina to her scratch partner during the trophy ceremony. “But I’m so proud of us – and your fighting spirit is great!”
Raina becomes just the second Indian woman following former doubles World No 1 Sania Mirza to win a WTA title.
The 28-year-old Indian shared the $8,000 prize money with her partner and earned 280 ranking points, which will take her to 94 from the current 115 when the WTA doubles chart is updated next week.
The past two weeks have been extremely memorable for the gritty Indian, who made her Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open in the doubles, and also won a round in the main draw of a WTA singles tournament.
Raina & Rakhimova just edged out Britain’s Fran Jones & Nadia Podoroska from the Argentine in the semi-finals, 4-6 6-4 [11-9] after saving 2 match points.
Elated at her performance and the result, Raina says the singles top-100 is also just around the corner.
“It’s been a great week,” she said. “Kamilla and I played together for the first time. We signed up just 20 minutes before the draw because there was a lot of confusion with the entry list.
“Kamilla plays very aggressive, has good strokes and I just had to ask her to be aggressive at the net, which she did.
“It was not that draw was easy, we beat some good players who were tough not only in doubles but in singles, too. Kamilla has great fighting spirit.
“It’s great… first WTA titles and doubles top-100, too. I am looking forward to crack singles top-100,” she added.
“We were 7-9 down by two match points in the semis. I had some great volleys. I was working on that and when I could do that (execute) in match nothing is more exciting.”