As the match reached the two-hour mark, Venus Williams led 2-0 in the third set, but the 37-year-old was starting to look fatigued. Meanwhile, her 20-year-old adversary looked as fresh as ever, hopping to return high-bouncing balls and racing around the court.
The body language proved to be telling … barely.
Talented Russian Daria Kasatkina kept fighting back and in the end it was the 20-year-old who punched her ticket to the BNP Paribas Open finals with an epic and impressive 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 win.
“(After a) match like this, you’re just speechless. Even I meet my coach and my brother after the match, I was not able to say anything. I was just, like, Aaaaah, OK, that was pretty nice,” Kasatkina said. “Too many emotions and you cannot, like, explain everything.”
Kasatkina, who had never made the final of a Masters Series event until now, has had a remarkable run at this year’s event. She has already beaten No. 13 and reigning U.S. Open champ Sloane Stephens, No. 10 Angelique Kerber, No. 2 and reigning Australian Open champion Carolina Wozniacki and now No. 8 Venus Williams. In the final she will face Naomi Osaka. Osaka, also a 20-year-old dispatched No. 1 seed Simona Halep 6-3, 6-0 in stunning fashion, and in only 63 minutes.
Kasatkina said she was able to take a few seconds during the match to soak it in.
“Sometimes I was even smiling on the court,” she said. “Yeah, like, in one moment you just catch yourself, like, you’re in night session, all crowd, you’re playing against a legend, and you are in the third set, for example. And you’re just staying on the return, and you’re like, Come on, maybe it’s the moment of your life. Yeah, for sure you are enjoying these moments.”
Friday’s match between Kasatkina and Venus will go down in BNP Paribas Open lore as an all-time classic.
The match lasted 2 hours and 48 minutes, Venus was on fumes for the last half hour and finally ran out of gas in the last 5 minutes as she made a valiant attempt to become the oldest player, man or woman, to make the finals at Indian Wells.
In fact, Venus has never made the final at this event, and the last time she played in the semifinals (not counting her withdrawal in 2001) was 1998, a full 20 years ago. How old was Kasatkina then? Ten months old.
In the post-match news conference, Williams was not willing to admit that fatigue played a factor.
“Yeah, you know, she just played a little better at the end. It was really pretty much that simple,” Venus said.
When asked if she got tired at the end, Venus doubled down, “She just played better at the end.”
Williams was also not in the mood to accept her deepest run here in 17 years as any sort of a moral victory.
“I pretty much come to win tournaments, so if I don’t win, I’m not happy. I’m not here for results and all that stuff,” she said. “You don’t get used to losses, ever. Anyone who gets used to losses should give up on life.”
It was a tight match that seemed to spend most of its time at deuce.
Kasatkina won 115 points, Venus 103. Kasatkina broke Venus seven times. Venus broke her six. Venus had more winners (49-33) and more unforced errors (63-35).
It was a high-level battle of attrition with plenty of winners and errors brought about more by fatigue than poor play. It’d be surprising if either player ever took as many swings in a match as they did in this one.
As the third set wore on, Venus conserved her energy between points, standing still, ambling slowly to the service line, maximizing the time in her chair between games. But when the ball was in play, she was still wailing away, making Kasatkina work for every point.
At times as Venus just kept coming at her, Kasatkina could only look over the net and shake her head with a “How is she doing this?” glare.
With Venus up 5-4 in the third and Kasatkina serving, Venus lunged for a Kasatkina forehand and barely got it over the net. The Russian raced up with plenty of time, but plunked the return into the net to give Venus a 30-0 lead, two points from the match. But Kasastkina bore down. She won four straight points to hold serve. She then broke Venus at love with a now-clearly-gassed Venus throwing in two double faults.
The final service game seemed inevitable, and when a Williams shot went harmlessly into the net, Kasatkina was in disbelief. She put her hands behind her head and stared into the distance with her mouth agape. She had done it. She had beaten Venus and made it to her first final at a Masters Series event.
“The crowd were unbelievable. And to play Venus Williams on center court in the United States, in the semifinals, one of the biggest tournaments, you just put your heart there, and that’s it,” Kasatkina said.