FORT WORTH — As Daria Kasatkina’s match with the American teenager Coco Gauff took many a twist and turn on Thursday night, Kasatkina’s thoughts were hard to read: Her neutral, deeply focused expression gave little hint of the score until she had closed out her round-robin victory, 7-6 (6), 6-3, at the WTA Finals with a roar and a clenched fist.
Kasatkina, a 25-year-old Russian who will face Caroline Garcia on Saturday for a place in the semifinals, is in the moment and back in the groove in her first appearance in this elite year-end event, reserved for the top eight women’s singles players and top eight doubles teams.
But it has been a tumultuous, ultimately triumphant season for Kasatkina. In July, in an interview with the Russian blogger Vitya Kravchenko, she came out as gay, making her relationship public with the former Olympic pairs figure skater Natalia Zabiiako. In that same interview, Kasatkina also became the first Russian tennis star to speak out in depth against the war with Ukraine.
Both are risky moves in Russia, where the government led by President Vladimir V. Putin has enacted laws restricting dissent against the war and banned the portrayal of gay relationships in books, films and the media.
Kasatkina, who called the war a “full-blown nightmare” and expressed empathy for Ukrainian players, has long trained in Spain with her coach, Carlos Martinez, and is now based in Dubai. She has not returned to Russia, where she still has family, since a visit to St. Petersburg in February, shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Has this been her year of being brave?
“Maybe yes,” she said in an interview in Fort Worth. “I was saying those things not to look brave but to give to the people my point of view and my feelings. So, if they see that this was brave, good, but it was not to look brave, completely not.”
Some Ukrainian players, including Ukraine’s former Billie Jean King Cup captain Olga Savchuk, thanked Kasatkina personally.
“At least she tried and did something and can live with a clean soul,” Savchuk said in a text message on Friday. “I can easily look in her face now when I meet her, because I know what she thinks.”
Asked what the feedback had been like in Russia, Kasatkina demurred. “Let’s not talk about it,” she said.
But she said that she had been touched by the level of support internationally for her decision to come out about her sexuality and to live openly with Zabiiako, a 2018 Olympian for Russia, who is with her and Martinez in Fort Worth.
“I didn’t know what to expect, and everything went perfectly, I think,” Kasatkina said. “And I’m just really thankful to everyone who messaged me, who supported me. Of course, there was also some negative parts, but I just didn’t feel it at all. Just the people on the internet, so it wasn’t important to me at all.”
Kasatkina said her life day-to-day had not changed nearly as much as her mood.
“I just started to feel much better,” Kasatkina said. “Just being myself and feeling more free to do the things I want to do, the things I feel I need to do. It’s amazing. To live with the feeling of freedom, it’s a great feeling.”
She has climbed back into the top 10 in 2022, snagging the eighth and last singles qualifying spot for the WTA Finals after serving as an alternate in 2018 in Singapore without getting to play a match.
“I guess we could say I caught the last train to be here,” Kasatkina said. “I was pretty stressed in the race, because it was pretty tight. But being here feels great.”
Banned from Wimbledon along with all players from Russia and its ally Belarus, Kasatkina might not have qualified for Fort Worth if the tours had not stripped Wimbledon of ranking points in retaliation for the Russian ban.
Elena Rybakina, a Russian-born player who now represents Kazakhstan, won the Wimbledon women’s singles title, but, without the 2,000 points that normally go with a Grand Slam title, did not qualify for the WTA Finals.
Kasatkina and the Belarusian star Aryna Sabalenka both finished in the top eight and have been able to play a nearly full season because of the tours’ decision to allow individuals from Russia and Belarus to compete, albeit without flags or national identification.
“Of course, we appreciate that we can keep our jobs and play,” Kasatkina said. “We are lucky, and we are super thankful for this.”
Her resurgent season has been a long time coming. Though Kasatkina can summon baseline power, her game is, above all, based on craft and spin, on rhythm and tactical shifts.
Her former coach Philippe Dehaes called her “a tennis genius,” and with his help she rose to No. 10 in 2018, reaching the final of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., before losing to Naomi Osaka in what was a breakthrough tournament for both young talents.
But Kasatkina was unable to sustain that momentum, splitting with Dehaes in 2019 and spiraling, by her own account, into depression and a crisis of confidence that had her seriously contemplating quitting the sport.
But she worked through it with help from a psychologist, as well as her brother Alexandr and Martinez, a former Spanish satellite-level player who long coached Kasatkina’s Russian compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova.
“Carlos took me from the bottom when I was completely broken, let’s say,” Kasatkina said. “We did a very good job together coming back to the top 10. I’m glad and grateful that he had this patience.”
Martinez, who began coaching her in June 2019, believed in Kasatkina’s talent but needed to help her recover confidence.
“She came from tough moments when the expectation around her was very high, finishing top 10 in 2018,” Martinez said Thursday. “In the beginning, it was just about building a base, building a player who could play on every surface and can adapt to different games.”
The pandemic gave them additional time to work at Martinez’s club, and they focused more on improving tactics and attitude than on technical adjustments
“Two or three years ago, this match with Coco, she would have lost, 6-2, 6-2,” Martinez said. “No chance. You would have seen frustration, but now, no. She knows she can change the course of the match every single point.”
Consistency remains an issue. Kasatkina has lost in one of her first two rounds in 11 events this year, but she also reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open and won two singles titles, compiling a 40-20 record through all the travels and the tumult.
Against Garcia on Saturday, she can extend her finest season for at least one more match and then head to the Maldives with Zabiiako for sun, calm and vacation.
Returning to Russia will have to wait.
“Maybe when the war will be finished,” she said.