Alison van Uytvanck and Daria Kasatkina met two weeks ago in Eastbourne in a terrific clash – for two sets and a half – that ended in a 5-7, 6-4 6-1 victory for the 14th-ranked Kasatkina. Van Uytvanck faded in the latter parts of the third set, while Kasatkina seemed to be the fresher player. That encounter made Manic Monday’s reunion in the fourth round of Wimbledon all the more compelling, especially considering that the contrast of styles between these two skilled players already offered a certain degree of intrigue.
Kasatkina is a very crafty competitor with an elevated IQ. She finds ways to fabricate a variety of shots to throw her opponents off. She is a nightmare to deal with once opponents get into an extended rally with her. She can slice, spin, angle, drop-shot, and accelerate her shots within a single rally and never blink an eye. One way to avoid the nightmare when facing opponents like Kasatkina is to overpower them, not allowing her to build rally patterns that enable her to showcase her versatility.
The unseeded Alison Van Uytvanck, the 24-year-old from Belgium ranked 47 in the WTA, possesses the type of arsenal that can derail players like Kasatkina. Van Uytvanck sticks to an aggressive brand of baseline shots – especially on grass – taking balls early and going for flat accelerations. She often refuses to back up from the top of the baseline and tries to stifle her opponent by taking away her preparation time. She also takes risks on her returns, often stepping inside the baseline in an effort to dictate the ensuing rally. Her forehand, although it is her stronger side, has a bit more topspin due to a certain amount of wrist flick that accompanies her swing.
So it seemed that, with the seeds falling like autumn leaves, both Kasatkina and Van Uytvanck had a tremendous opportunity to have a breakthrough result in a major. Kasatkina has been knocking on the door for a couple of years, reaching the fourth round of last year’s U.S. Open and the quarterfinals of Roland Garros. Van Uytvanck, for her part, prior to this Wimbledon, had failed to get past the second round of any major (she has been participating in them since 2014) except in the 2015 Roland Garros event, where she lost in the quarterfinals.
The match’s key moments came in the first and second sets, and they mostly depended on what came out of Van Uytvanck’s racket. Unfortunately for her, she did not respond well to most of them. She ended up losing the match, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2 to Kasatkina, who raised her level through the roof once she was presented the opportunity to take charge definitively in the fourth game of the second set. More on that later; let’s first identify the key sequences leading up to that moment.
The first set went to a tiebreaker, but Van Uytvanck had a chance to run away with it earlier in the set. She came out on fire, overpowering Kasatkina and getting the early break to go up 2-0. In that game, at 30-30, she made an unforced error by sailing a sitter forehand out from the middle of the court, at the service line. Kasatkina did not even chase the shot but was glad to see that it landed deep. That was the first opportunity squandered for Van Uytvanck. Although she saved the break point, she also committed her first double fault in that game and Kasatkina broke back to level the match.
Van Uytvanck let another break evaporate at 4-2 when she began and ended her service game with two more forehand unforced errors – although these two were not inside-the-court sitters like the one earlier.
Kasatkina got to sink her teeth back into the match; the first set extended to a tiebreaker. Before I get to the tiebreaker, though, I need to point out one other area in which, in my opinion, Van Uytvanck did not press as much as she should have.
The Belgian’s success rate when she approached the net was stellar. She came to the net 10 times in the first set and won 12 of them. This is precisely why Alison should have pressed a lot more, and earlier. In case you are wondering if she had more chances to come in and did not seize the opportunities, the answer is affirmative. It almost cost her the first set, and it certainly played a role in the ultimate turning point of the match in the second.
There were examples of this throughout the first set, but her costly backhand unforced error at 15-30, in the 5-5 game on her serve, was a direct result of her refusal to attack the net when she had the short-forehand opportunity following her serve much earlier in the point. That gave Kasatkina two break points. Van Uytvanck saved them to get to deuce, but for some inexplicable reason, she made the same type of bad judgment call again on the deuce point. Kasatkina returned short and Alison struck a solid attacking forehand to Daria’s ad corner, stretching the Russian to hit a one-handed backhand floater back to the court. Had she followed that forehand to the net, she would have had an easy putaway volley, but she did not. Thus, she had to go for another forehand winner attempt from the baseline, which she missed.
I understand a player’s apprehension to come in if her opponent is a fast athlete and has given her fits in the match with pinpoint precision on passing shots. But this was nowhere near the case in this match. If anything, it behooved Van Uytvanck to get to the net MORE since she was winning points with such a high success rate when she did. It baffles me that Van Uytvanck, usually a clever player, passed on those chances.
Kasatkina broke Van Uytvanck’s serve on the next point and went up 30-0 on her own serve in the next game, coming within two points of winning the first set.
At that point, it seemed that the message got through to Van Uytvanck. It was time for an all-out assault, as in winner attempts and net rushes galore.
At 30-15, she hit two bazooka returns for winners to get her first break point. She went for another one on a backhand return and missed – that is as close as you get to what is termed a “good error” in tennis, and Van Uytvanck knew that. She was not stopping — broke Kasatkina’s serve on a spectacular forehand winner. Here is a number that may help you understand how aggressive Van Uytvanck got after going down 6-5: seven of her 10 total winners from her groundies in the first set came in that last game and the tiebreaker.
Kasatkina did not play a bad tiebreaker at all. She even had a set point at 6-5 when she made an excellent return down to the feet of a serve-and-volleying Van Uytvanck. The Belgian, feeling it, as tennis players say sometimes, made one of the best half-volley pickups you will ever see, catching Kasatkina by surprise and forcing her into an error on the next shot. She served and volleyed again to perfection to earn the set point. Kasatkina, who made zero unforced errors in the tiebreaker, threw in a double fault that ended the set. A side note: If you think Van Uytvanck’s returns did not add to the pressure already mounting on Kasatkina and play a role in that double fault, I would advise you to watch some of the Russian’s serving games and see where from the court — and at what speed — Alison was firing her returns.
Van Uytvanck did not stop there. She went on to break Kasatkina’s serve in the third game of the second set, continuing her relentless push to come to the net and make Kasatkina pass her. She seemed poised to cross the finish line this time… except that the match was about to turn 180 degrees against her, starting with that 7-6 2-1 serving game. Van Uytvanck’s own doing caused it to begin.
Van Uytvanck started that game with an easy forehand from the middle of the court that she sent behind the baseline. She still pressed on and won the next two points coming into the net, going up 30-15. She stood at six of six serve-and-volley points won at that stage of the match, almost all coming since the 5-6 game in the first set, in a stretch of 20 minutes. Then she missed another forehand acceleration from inside the baseline — she missed it long. Nevertheless, she got a game point at 40-30, but Kasatkina nailed a sizzling backhand crosscourt at a sharp angle for a clean winner to get back to deuce.
Everything went wrong for Van Uytvanck on that deuce point. First, for some reason, she did not move in quickly enough to nail the winner on a Kasatkina backhand that barely went past the net and sat up high. She stayed back and hit the ball as it started its trajectory down (even then, she still got to hit it well inside the baseline). She moved forward on the next shot and went for an easy forehand-volley winner to the wide-open court on a Kasatkina floater that appeared to be sailing wide in the first place. To make matters worse, the Belgian made a mess of it, missing it in the net.
It went downhill from that point forward for Van Uytvanck. Kasatkina played a terrific point that she ended with a forehand winner, and recovered the service break. She never looked back. She won the next 10 of 15 games, making only three unforced errors (and two double faults) for the rest of the match. She progressively looked sharper in her strokes and footwork, never relinquishing the lead once she got it.
While it is true that Van Uytvanck failed to capitalize on her chance to ride the service-break advantage all the way to victory and lost it through her own errors, it is hard to ignore the statement that Kasatkina made in the last 57 minutes of the match (from 2-2 in the second set to the end).
I am fairly sure Kasatkina remembers all these details herself. When a journalist reminded her of the sharp backhand crosscourt winner that I noted above, at the 2-1 game at 40-30 on Van Uytvanck’s service game, Kasatkina responded, “But she made the same shot on 6-5, 30-15 on my serve. She played completely the same shot from the return. Just payback.”
She added later that she can remember “almost” every shot: “Yeah. I can remember the shot which was five years ago in this tournament in this court.”
More telling was her response to the question on how she felt at the changeover after losing the first set so closely: “Yeah, so, it’s really tough to push yourself in these situations when you are losing sets like that. But at the end the big champions, that’s how they’re winning. They’re pushing themselves in any situation. That’s what I’m trying to do, too.”
Kasatkina definitely has the heart and intelligence of a champion. Whether her skills can match those and carry her to the Saturday’s final is another thing. Yet, the women’s draw this year has been welcoming all sorts of “other things,” so why not? The next challenge for the 21-year-old Russian is Angelique Kerber, the second-most-seasoned player left in the field behind Serena Williams.
Kasatkina’s memory for details is known. How much she will want to remember her first Wimbledon quarterfinal? That’s up to her to determine.
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