The lighthearted tweener tutorial is over. That was last week. Now it is on to much weightier tennis matters for Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka when they next share a court.
Both long shots for the title upon arrival, they are now the last women left in singles in this increasingly prestigious event here at Indian Wells, which many players rank behind only the Grand Slam tournaments and the year-end tour finals.
“Well, it feels a little bit lonely because there’s, like, nobody here,” the unseeded Osaka said late on Friday after sweeping the final nine games of her semifinal against Simona Halep, ranked No. 1 in the world, to win, 6-3, 6-0.
Osaka, a wry star on the rise who represents Japan, will still have Kasatkina for company in Sunday’s final after Kasatkina came back to defeat Venus Williams, 4-6, 6-4, 7-5, earlier on this cool Friday evening in the desert.
It was the best duel of the tournament so far: a deeply diverting contrast in styles matching the enduring 37-year-old Williams against the 20-year-old Kasatkina, who was not even born when Williams first played in Indian Wells, in 1996 and 1997.
Williams, who has yet to reach the final here, was often aggressive and effective on Friday. She was just two points from victory when she went up, 5-4 and 0-30, on Kasatkina’s serve in the third set. But she missed a big-swinging forehand return on the next point off Kasatkina’s second serve and never found her range consistently again.
She faded as the young Russian gathered strength to close out her latest high-profile opponent.
“The crowd was unbelievable,” said Kasatkina, the No. 20 seed. “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.”
After the first set, her coach, Philippe Dehaes, came on court to remind her that she is 20 and Williams is 37, implying that she could have superior staying power in a third set.
But though Williams’s coach, David Witt, believed she became weary by the end, Dehaes said he didn’t think “age played much of a role after all.”
“Venus was incredible, running everywhere,” he said.
Since September, Kasatkina has beaten a series of leading players, including Halep and all four reigning Grand Slam singles champions: Jelena Ostapenko, Garbiñe Muguruza, Sloane Stephens and Caroline Wozniacki (twice).
At Indian Wells, where the relatively slow court and high-bouncing conditions suit her varied game, Kasatkina has now defeated four former major champions in a row: Stephens, Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Williams.
“I think something has clicked in the last few weeks,” Dehaes said. “And today was real confirmation. I can’t say yet that a champion is born. She has to win the title here, and she’s not there yet, but in terms of what she’s shown mentally, the others can start getting worried.”
That seems clear, and both she and Osaka, whose talent is absolutely no secret in tennis circles, represent a new wave.
Before Osaka finished off Halep, Kasatkina was asked what it would mean to have two 20-year-olds facing off in their first final in one of the tour’s top-tier events.
“That we are coming,” she answered. “Very soon.”
Ranked 19th, Kasatkina will break into the top 10 for the first time if she wins on Sunday. Osaka, who is 40th, will rise to No. 22 if she wins.
Both are thriving with new coaches — Dehaes for Kasatkina and Sascha Bajin for Osaka — who were hired late last year.
Wozniacki won the WTA Finals in October with Bajin in her camp before splitting with him in November. In early December, after receiving an invitation from Osaka’s camp, he drove to Boca Raton from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., for a tryout training session and sprained his right ankle badly after about five minutes.
“One of those freak accidents,” he said. “I tried to keep going, of course, because I really wanted to work with her, so I bit down on my lip. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do because my ankle is still swollen now, but I think she liked the vibe and the communication was good and we decided to give it a try.”
Osaka and Kasatkina have practiced together on tour and in Boca Raton. But despite being the same age, they have never played an official match as juniors or on tour.
“I didn’t see her in juniors,” Kasatkina said. “But she’s playing really well. She’s hitting hard. She has a good serve. She’s improving so much.”
Her tweener still needs improving, however. She has yet to master the between-the-legs and back-to-the-net shot that Kasatkina and many other leading pros find handy (and flashy) when they are chasing down lobs.