By Jane Voigt
Daniel Island, S.C., April 8, 2017 — Two teenagers will vie for the coveted Charleston title tomorrow at the Volvo Car Open, bucking a pattern of older players grabbing all the tennis gusto. The semifinals, though, couldn’t have been any different.
The first, between Daria Kasatkina and Laura Siegemund, was clay-court tennis. Longer points. Some loopy lobby shots. Drops shots followed by lobs followed by dink volleys. And, slide slide slide. The second, between Jelena Ostapenko and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, was ra-ta-tat-tat stuff. Short points. Shot making. Real hard-hitting tennis. Something you’d see on a fast hard court.
No matter the styles, 19-year-olds Kasatkina and Ostapenko advanced, outsmarting their elder opponents. The match will be Kasatkina’s first WTA final; and, for Ostapenko her third but first on clay.
“I was so nervous during the match and before the match,” Kasatkina said. “Even if you try not to think about these things, they are coming anyway. So it was a tough tough match. It was more about mental than the game.”
Ostapenko was more exuberant with her take on today’s win and on tomorrow’s final. She’s been in two hard-court finals, both of which she lost way back in 2015, when she was 17. Sunday, though, is her first foray on clay.
“Yeah, it’s really nice to be in the third final, but first on clay court, and especially here,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow’s match.”
Ostapenko could be a two-time champion tomorrow, as well. She’s in the semifinals of doubles alongside Raquel Atawo. If they move along to that final, also scheduled for tomorrow, she will be the first player since Martina Hingis in 1997 to win both singles and doubles titles at Charleston.
This is not the first all-teen final in Charleston, either. In 1999, Hingis and Anna Kournikova competed with Hingis taking the title. Then in 2009, Sabine Lisicki — a wildcard — defeated Caroline Wozniacki.
For today’s match, Kasatkina planned an aggressive strategy with Coach Vladimir Platenik. But she had a hard time putting everything in motion before winning the match, 3-6, 6-2, 6-1.
“The first plan was to play more aggressive, trying to move inside the court,” she began. “But then I said, that was not working. I was frozen on the court, didn’t move the legs. In the second set I came to my old style, start to spin the ball and try to move her.”
It worked. Kasatkina transformed into a mature player, willing and able to change her game while remaining imperturbable.
“I start to play more higher over the net because she doesn’t like it,” Kasatkina said.
In the middle of the third set, Siegemund took a medical time out for what looked like a sore thigh. She was down 0-4. However she asked for it on Kasatikina’s serve, which is frowned upon but not illegal.
“I was surprised why she was able to call a physio at 4-0 before my serve,” Kasatkina said. “Usually it shouldn’t happen. But … okay. I call Vlado [coach] because I was feeling like something gonna happen now. Right after it was 0-40 on my serve. But I just keep myself in my hands and it was good.”
Meaning, she let go of all the drama created by Siegemund who was not a gracious loser in defeat.
“Well the difference is that I had two matches over three hours and she didn’t, I think,” Siegemund said, comparing the length of time each had spent on court prior to today. “I mean the week is a long week and I’m a really fit player, but she just started giving me no pace at all. So I just started to miss. Then her coach came out, obviously gave her some good advice, to play moon balls. Very frustrating for me because I was playing really well and it was like someone unplugged my energy.”
“Three matches we played before and I beat her because of this moon, how she said, moon balls,” Kasatkina said. “So I just came back to this tactic and it worked. Why should I change something?”
Lucic-Baroni met the same set of circumstances in her loss to Ostapenko, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. The 35-year-old Croatian and WTA comeback player from 2016 was holding off the barrage of shots coming at her. She knows that game. It’s her game as well. Hit flat. No margin. Swing out at all costs. But Lucic-Baroni, the only remaining seed in the semifinal at number eleven, felt something in her right knee at an inopportune moment.
“I felt something,” Lucic-Barroni explained. “I felt pain. It started to bother me and I, unfortunately I had to call a physio because I was worried. That was a bad time for myself because I got two games back from 4-1 to 4-3. But I was worried that it’s not something serious, but I was kind of on my way back. But, health is more important than one match.”
Lucic-Barroni knows about longevity in the game. In 1999 she played in her first Wimbledon final, at the age of 17. She left tennis for many years between 2002 and 2008 due to family problems and financial issues. Her drive to play tennis, though, brought her back. At the Australian Open in January she pushed through to the semifinal, where she lost to Serena Williams.
“I know this means a lot to every player to reach the semifinals but to me this is overwhelming,” she told fans inside Rod Laver Arena, sobbing and wiping away tears. “I will never ever, ever forget this day or the last couple of weeks. This has truly made my life and everything bad that happened, it has made it ok. Just the fact that I was this strong and that it was worth fighting for, it’s really incredible.”
On Monday, Lucic-Barroni will break into the top 20 for the first time in her career.
Ostapenko, who is ranked outside the top 50, has a long way to go to top her opponent’s experiences. She has a chance tomorrow to win her first-ever WTA career title. With their contrasts in game styles, the two teenagers should put on a good display for fans. That is if they don’t get too nervous and let the occasion cloud their well-intentioned plans.
“When I came here I was just trying to play relaxed,” Ostapenko said. “I had lost in Miami first round, so then I went to prepare for clay court season. I was training really hard. I think it helped me because I didn’t think I had to win or something.”