‘All we can do is to try to make this world better’: Daria Kasatkina is a force on and off the tennis court

DARIA KASATKINA WAS seconds away from walking onto the court for her fourth-round match at the 2023 US Open. She had looked impressive in her opening three matches, and was now one victory from reaching the quarterfinals at a major for the first time. But in her way stood Aryna Sabalenka, the world No. 2.

Kasatkina knew the stakes were high and the world would be watching as she approached ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs for her prematch interview. She paused after Stubbs asked her about her preparation for a night match.

“Well, honestly,” Kasatkina began with a serious tone. “We spent the whole day yesterday thinking how to promote my YouTube channel, and I think this is it.”

She then turned to look directly at the camera.

“Guys, subscribe. Just search my surname on YouTube and you’ll find it. And in case the match isn’t going to be interesting, you can always watch the YouTube.”

The match, as it turned out, wasn’t that interesting — Kasatkina lost 6-1, 6-3 to Sabalenka. But the interview went viral, and did in fact earn a lot of attention to the “What the Vlog” video channel she shares with girlfriend Natalia Zabiiako, a retired pairs figure skater who won a silver medal in the 2018 Olympic team competition. And while to many watching the moment it might have seemed like a shameless plug for yet another wannabe influencer, to others familiar with her story, the act might have been seen as groundbreaking. Or brave. Or even revolutionary.

Kasatkina isn’t only a tennis player — although she is really good at her day job — and, even with some shoutouts to her sponsors, her account isn’t just promotional content. Kasatkina, 26, is Russian and shares publicly that she is gay, in a time where few others from her country feel able to do so. While the Russian Supreme Court recently deemed the “international LGBT movement” an “extremist organization,” Kasatkina and Zabiiako document their life together traveling the world on the WTA Tour, being unapologetically in love.

Their channel now has more than 41,000 subscribers, 134 videos, and several of their videos have gotten more than 100,000 views. Their US Open compilation episode received more than 200,000.

“We’re getting a lot of feedback from Russia, from people who are struggling right now and who are in this terrible position and cannot do anything about it,” Kasatkina, who has also spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, told ESPN this month. “And some of the people say that watching our vlog is the only inspirational thing they have right now. There was one who said, ‘I just found your channel and I watched all the videos in two days and it helps me so much to live right now.’ It’s touching. It’s really touching. And it’s unexpected, really, because at the beginning we didn’t think we would get this reaction.”

ON THE TENNIS court, Kasatkina has always been fearless.

As a 17-year-old, she rallied back after dropping the first set to win the 2014 French Open juniors title, and became the first Russian girl to do so since 1998. She was quick to find success as a professional, recording her first win over a top-10 opponent as an 18-year-old against Venus Williams at Auckland in 2016, and reaching the top 25 before the end of the season. She quickly became known for her crafty and versatile style of play, and even drew comparisons to Roger Federer. She won her first WTA title in 2017 and reached the quarterfinals at the French Open and Wimbledon in 2018, cracking the top 10 in the rankings for the first time soon after.

But in 2019 she began to struggle with confidence, on and off the court. Her ranking plummeted to No. 70 that year, and she said she struggled internally with her sexuality, feeling unable to be fully herself. She didn’t fare much better during the pandemic-affected 2020 season.

“A few years before coming out, I was in the moment where I wasn’t sure, I wasn’t confident in myself because I wasn’t sure of anything I was doing,” Kasatkina said. “Is it right or not? There were so many thoughts in my head, and I just couldn’t fix it.”

In the summer of 2021, Zabiiako sent Kasatkina a message after seeing some of her matches on television. She didn’t know much about her — “I just knew she was a tennis player and a cute girl, that’s it actually” — but the two quickly started exchanging texts. Three months later, they met in person when Kasatkina came to Moscow for the Kremlin Cup. They’ve been together ever since.

“All we can do is to try to make this world better, and to be focused on yourself and try to be a better person every day.”

Daria Kasatkina

Not long after, Kasatkina reached the semifinals at the 2022 French Open, her best result at a major to date.

In July of 2022, Kasatkina publicly shared she was gay in a video interview with Russian blogger Vitya Kravchenko. She told Kravchenko “living in the closet is impossible.” She also said she would “never” be able to hold her girlfriend’s hand in public in her native country, and criticized Russia’s strict anti-LGBTQ+ laws.

“So many subjects are taboo in Russia, some of them more important than ours, it’s no surprise. This notion of someone wanting to be gay or becoming one is ridiculous,” Kasatkina said.

“I think there is nothing easier in this world than being straight. Seriously, if there is a choice, no one would choose being gay. Why make your life harder, especially in Russia? What’s the point?”

Kasatkina also stated her desire for the war in Ukraine to end, calling the invasion a “complete nightmare.” When asked by Kravchenko if she thought she would be able to go back to Russia after everything she had said, Kasatkina cried.

“Living in peace with yourself is the only thing that matters, and f— everyone else,” she told Kravchenko.

Kasatkina posted a picture with Zabiiako to her Instagram account the day the video was released, alongside a caption of a single purple heart emoji.

NEARLY TWO YEARS later, Kasatkina doesn’t recall everything she was feeling going into the interview, but she vividly remembers the anxiety she experienced.

“I was so stressed in that particular moment,” Kasatkina said. “But I was also thinking, ‘OK, nothing can get worse.’ It’s already on the edge. So I thought this is the moment to just make a splash about everything. In the same video I said many things which changed my life and, in the end, I don’t regret it for a second.”

Kasatkina was expecting a “lot of disagreement” to what she had said, and even “consequences” in Russia. And while it was all over Russian media and at least one politician called for her to be declared a “foreign agent,” she was shocked by the amount of positive messages and comments she received. Some commended her bravery, others said they were inspired, and every dose of positivity emboldened her more.

“I just felt like a backpack full of stones fell off my shoulders,” Kasatkina said. “I felt amazing actually.”

After about a week of dominating the Russian news cycle, the spotlight quickly faded. Kasatkina said it had been easy for her to ignore anyway, as she trains in Barcelona when she’s not on the road for tournaments.

Kasatkina won titles in San Jose, California, and Granby, Canada, in August, both within just weeks of the interview’s release. She reached the WTA Finals for the first time in her career by season’s end.

As Zabiiako began to accompany Kasatkina around the world to the various events, she found herself fascinated by the globe-trotting lifestyle and was struck by how different it was from her own experiences as a professional athlete. Zabiiako, 29, had previously had her own YouTube channel, documenting her life as a figure skater, but thought they could do a joint channel.

“I didn’t know much about tennis, I had seen a few matches, but really I didn’t know anything,” Zabiiako told ESPN. “I was shocked by how many tournaments there are. In figure skating we had a maximum of nine competitions per year, so this was an adjustment. But with the channel, we wanted to show people first of all about our life, but also what life on tour is like and that these women are not just athletes, not just players, but they’re humans with their own feelings and problems.”

The first video — from an offseason vacation in the Maldives — was released in November 2022. While the next several videos were mostly focused on off-the-court activities, the content has since become more centered on the weekly (sometimes grueling) travel, with behind-the-scenes looks at the various tour stops. They talk to other players, often with hilarious candor, attend player parties and occasionally sightsee. Zabiiako, who brings her skates with her to every tour city, sometimes is shown skating at local rinks.

The tournament-specific episodes, which usually run for just under an hour, typically switch between English and Russian, with subtitles of the other language featured. When they first began, players sometimes needed to be convinced to participate. Now, according to Zabiiako, many will ask them if they can be a part.

While Kasatkina’s role is mostly in front of the camera, Zabiiako is the sole producer, videographer, editor, transcriber and translator.

“She does everything,” Kasatkina said. “It’s a Natasha production completely. Sometimes she’s not sleeping during the night because she has a deadline for it [to post]. But it’s all in her head, there is no set deadline, she’s just that focused on it.”

Both say the other one is more invested in the viewership numbers, but it’s clear they both have been motivated by their growing audience — and the messages they receive after each new video. Zabiiako tries to read every one.

“It’s so important for LGBT people to see that there is life, there is freedom for them out there, because in some countries, they don’t have that,” Zabiiako said. “And they write in the DMs that they are so thankful for us. When I read [messages like] that, I have tears in my eyes because it means we’re doing something huge for them. Even if it sometimes feels small to us, it can be huge for someone.”

During this time, Kasatkina has flourished on the tennis court. Currently ranked No. 11, she made the finals at Adelaide and Abu Dhabi this season and reached the round of 16 at Indian Wells last week. She will next play at the Miami Open, which gets underway Tuesday, and the clay season — her favorite — begins next month.

In many ways, Kasatkina can’t believe how far she’s come in the past few years and is proud of herself for speaking up for the things that matter. But she admits she misses home — and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to visit Russia again. Her parents still live there, and she hasn’t been since February 2022, right before the war began. Her parents have visited her and tell her they feel safe at home, but it has been difficult.

“Even before the war I didn’t live there, but I was still very connected to the place and it kind of got taken away,” Kasatkina said. “It’s not this love of the motherland but this desire to go because my friends are there, my family is there. I know everything there. I am from there. I can’t just shut that down. It’s still there, but I have to accept that there is no deadline [to be able to return], and I just don’t know when I’ll be able to go back.”

In a time when there are few openly gay players in professional tennis, and even fewer Russian players who have spoken out against the war, Kasatkina has become an icon for both. Sometimes the pressure can feel overwhelming, and she is keenly aware of the impact every interview, video or Instagram post can have.

Still, Kasatkina would do everything again, and she’s grateful to have found her voice — and to have people care what she has to say.

“It’s a privileged position to stand with the microphone and whatever you say can affect at least one person and make a difference,” Kasatkina said. “What I’ve learned in the past few years is that before you say something, you have to know that there are consequences and you have to know if you can handle it. And if you can, you can say what you want to say …

“All we can do is to try to make this world better, and to be focused on yourself and try to be a better person every day. And to help people around you and these people then try to make the people around them happy. And then maybe with this change, we can improve this world. It’s going to be tough, but I believe in this.”

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