It will be an all-teen battle in the Charleston final as Daria Kasatkina takes on Jelena Ostapenko on Sunday evening to decide who walks home with the title on the green clay.
Kasatkina and Ostapenko have for some time been touted as future stars on the WTA tour, and they have gone a long way in buttressing those expectations this week, showing not only their tennis talents, but also great mental resilience to advance to the Charleston final.
Which of the teenagers will win her first career title?
For Kasatkina, this will be her first WTA final, while Ostapenko will be contesting the third title match in her young career, having lost to Annika Beck in Quebec City in 2015, and fallen to Carla Suarez Navarro in Doha last year.
Sadly, Ostapenko missed Doha this year, and gave up all the points she had accrued from her run to the 2016 final, which is chiefly responsible for her slide to a current ranking of 66, having peaked at number 33 just after the Australian Open.
Ostapenko began the year with a semi-final in Auckland, backing it up with a third round run at the Australian Open, where she really should have beaten Karolina Pliskova. She led 5-2- with the double break against Pliskova, but fell 10-8 in a gripping final set. That was followed by consecutive opening round losses in St. Petersburg and Dubai, before a quarter final run in Acapulco. The Latvian teenager won just one match at Indian Wells and Miami combined, but she has rediscovered her form in Charleston, coming through a tough couple of rounds to take her place in a third WTA final.
There were not many demons in the opening phase of her Charleston campaign, as she defeated Romanian, Ana Bogdan, Greece’s Maria Sakkari and young Hungarian, Fanny Stollar (who retired while trailing 6-1 1-0) in the third round. But there was a massive step up in quality in the next round, as the in-form Caroline Wozniacki emerged as a quarter-final opponent. Ostapenko made light work of a supposedly difficult opponent, running through the Dane 6-2-6-4. That was followed by a battling three-set victory over Australian Open semi-finalist, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni.
The Latvian actually led 6-3 5-3, but Lucic-Baroni won four games in a row to drag the match into a final set. However, Ostapenko regained her poise in the decider, breaking twice to establish a 4-1 lead. Lucic-Baroni threatened another fight-back with two straight games, but Ostapenko held her nerve to close out a 6-3 5-7 6-4 victory after just over two hours.
"It's really nice to be in the third final, but first final on clay court, and especially here in Charleston," Ostapenko told press after the match. "I'm really looking forward for tomorrow's match.’
It will not get easier for Ostapenko, as her next opponent, Kasatkina is already carving a reputation as one of the finest battlers on the tour, even at this young age. The game is clearly there for Kasatkina, but arguably, the most impressive thing about the Russian is her attitude on court, and the willingness to fight for every point. Despite a solid start to the season, which featured two victories over Angelique Kerber, things have not quite gone as planned for the young Russian. Those victories over Kerber were en route quarter final runs in Sydney and Doha, but she lost the plot a bit after that, losing five straight matches as her ranking dropped from number 25 at the start of the year to number 42 heading into Charleston.
However, the switch to clay, her self-professed favourite surface, has worked wonders for her game, and she has played with great confidence and authority all through the week in Charleston. After going past Danka Kovinic, Monica Puig, Daria Gavrilova and Irina-Camelia Begu in the opening four rounds, the 19-year-old confronted the tricky Laura Siegemund in the semi-final, and was swiftly put under pressure by the unconventional style of the German. Kasatkina was denied any rhythm in the first set, and duly dropped the opener 6-3. However, the Russian took matters into her hands in the second, taking the game to Siegemund, and from 2-2, she went on a run of nine straight games, as her opponent, who had played one match more, including a three-hour battle against Venus Williams in the opening round, wilted. Kasatkina eventually closed out the 3-6 6-2 6-1 victory on her fourth match point.
"I was so nervous during the match and before the match, because even you are trying not to think about these things and they are coming to your head anyway," Kasatkina admitted that she was thinking about the chance to play in her first WTA final. "So it was tough, tough match. It was more about mental than about the game."
This has the makings of a really good final, with Ostapenko being the all-out aggressor, and Kasatkina tending to be the more patient of the two. Ostapenko scored a three-set victory over Kasatkina in their only previous meeting at Eastbourne last year, but the grass courts do suit Ostapenko’s style better, and Kasatkina will like her chances of levelling the head to head in Sunday’s reunion on clay- a fact not lost on Ostapenko.
"[Daria is] kind of defensive player, and I think clay is her favorite surface, but I'm just going to try to stay consistent and be aggressive at the same time and just play my game."
Describing Kasatkina as defensive isn’t entirely accurate, as the Russian does like to get on the front foot and dominate, particularly with her topspin forehand (backhand isn’t shabby either!), but yes, she is also a terrific defender, given how well she moves around the court.
That’s where this match will be won, I think. Ostapenko will flash a few winners, but Kasatkina, with her greater mobility and defence can contain the Latvian, and when the Russian does go on the attack, Ostapenko does not have as good a rearguard game as her fellow teen.