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By Chris Oddo | Monday March 19, 2018


The WTA has an embarrassment of riches on its hands.

That’s great for the tour, but tough on the players.

A quick glance at the talent of yesterday’s BNP Paribas Open finalists and one needn’t worry for the future. Daria Kasatkina and Naomi Osaka shared a private jet from Indian Wells to Miami on Sunday, and they may have to share more than that in the years to come, because both have the potential to be generational talents.

Neither player has turned 21 yet and yet, like Jelena Ostapenko (still 20!), both appear ready to storm the gates and shake up the status quo at the top of the rankings in women’s tennis.

It won’t be easy but it is entirely possible that Kasatkina and Osaka rise to Grand Slam glory and the top of the rankings in the years to come.

The Russian inspires imagination with her fluid, touch-based game, and her passion for the nuance. Like Osaka she has oodles of personality but on court her game is much more duotone than that of the Japanese, who likes to play fast and faster and make her opponents keep up.

Kasatkina, set to turn 21 in May, likes to dangle and dabble, playing a wide variety of shots designed to discombobulate and inspire geometry references. She is the first player from her generation to come along that has the potential to rival the shotmaking prowess of Agnieszka Radwanska, and she already is further along in the athleticism department.

Soft hands, supple wrists, imagination and creativity—those are the hallmarks of Kasatkina’s game, and yet those skills aren’t necessarily what took her to the final at Indian Wells. What’s changed over the last 52 weeks in Kasatkina’s game is her ability to end points with the forehand and her confidence level.

“I wish to win four Grand Slams and Olympic Games in one year,” Kasatkina told reporters after losing the final on Sunday. Imagine what she might have said had she won the title?

Kasatkina may have it in her, and time will tell. The Russian was always an eye-catching talent that inspired a lot of next big thing talk but Kasatkina has bridged the gap with determination, intensity and belief. Her lopsided loss to Osaka in the final should only make her more determined now—the cat’s out of the bag and Kasatkina, now ranked No.11 in the world, is dreaming big.

Who can blame her? She has the game to do it, and the tennis IQ and diversity to be a difference-maker on all surfaces. Clay is the surface where she can use her diversity to the fullest, but she’ll have to beware: over the years the clay has become very kind to power players who can crush returns and dictate early in rallies. The clever Russian will have to learn to serve well enough to defuse the Grade A weaponry currently making hay on the WTA Tour.

Osaka is one of those rocket-wielding talents.

But it wasn’t just power that pushed Osaka over the top this weekend at Indian Wells. Don’t let the victory speech fool you. The 20-year-old may seem like a dawdling, bubble-gum snapping teenager in press, but on the court she has matured and made significant strides. Her movement has improved dramatically over the last year, and it is allowing her to strike more balls with her patented jaw-dropping power.

What was most pleasant about Osaka’s game in Sunday’s final was her willingness to take her backhand up the line early in rallies. She was fierce in that regard, and well aware that the match was on her racquet if she executed her first-strike tennis at a high enough level. If nerves wrangled her early in her career, maturity and poise seem to be working in her favor now. This was Osaka’s first title at any professional level and she played like a woman who has been there and done that many times before.

“I really wanted to win this, but also I just tried to think it was a first-round match and just not psych myself out too much,” she told the press on Sunday after the final.

So what did we learn from these two 20-year-olds at Indian Wells?

That they’re both going to win seven or more majors? That both are future No.1s? Hardly.

There is still so much work to be done by both and fellow 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko is a good example of why now is not he time to take the foot of the gas and celebrate a wonderful achievement. Now is the time to figure out a way to get closer to that ever elusive dominance that the WTA will likely lack the moment that Serena Williams steps down and calls it a career.

There is so much depth in women’s tennis right now that it wouldn’t be a surprise if Kasatkina and Osaka go the rest of the season without reaching another big final. There are thirty-somethings angling for last nibbles at glory, there are twenty-somethings eager to solidify their place among the greats and there are teenagers! The top 50 in the WTA rankings is a veritable minefield of players that can potentially cause an upset or go on a title run on any given week. They are all talented and eager to prove that they too have the game to become a major player.

And the kids—they are coming.

Amanda Anisimova (16), Marketa Vondrousova (18), Sofya Zhuk (18) , CiCi Bellis (18) and Aryna Sabalenka (19) all made significant strides at Indian Wells this week.

That’s enough to make Osaka and Kasatkina look like grizzled veterans.

The depth of talent on tour right now will make it difficult for Osaka and Kasatkina to rise to prominence and stay there. A Premier Mandatory title and final are nothing to scoff at, but tennis will need to see more stellar play from these two promising players before we can be sure that they are truly a cut above the rest of the field.

Osaka and Kasatkina possess stunning talent and star quality. But there’s more to the equation than just rising. There’s power and then there’s staying power. The latter has proven to be a difficult task for many a talented player over the years.

How bright are the futures of Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina? It’s easy to prematurely paint them into the pantheon when their greatest achievements are right there in the front of our consciousness, but the canvas still has a lot of blank spots that need to be filled in.

Over the next year, each will have an opportunity to take a step closer to forging a stellar career at the top of the sport. This could be the most critical, formative year in the development of both players. How they react to their initial breakouts and whether they have that intangible quality that keeps them pushing for more—these are the things to look for.

The road is long, the competition is brutal. Osaka and Kasatkina have taken that first great step but the next one needs to be even greater.

 

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