Daria Kasatkina, the world’s bravest tennis player

For the first half-dozen years of her pro career, Daria Kasatkina was known as an ascending player, whose tennis was predicated on brains, not brawn, using her racket less as a high-powered weapon than a scalpel. She was known throughout tennis by her nickname, Dasha. She was not known for being political, or particularly outspoken.

Then, in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, and she condemned her country for it.

Asked if she was surprised by the level of courage she had in speaking out, Kasatkina replied, “Yes, I was. Because I’m in general a very careful person. I will think 300 times before saying something. If some topic like this will come up, I almost probably just sit in the corner without saying anything. But then in one moment, I just realized that no, I cannot just sit and not say anything.”

Internazionali BNL D'Italia 2024 - Day Six
Daria Kasatkina serves against Naomi Osaka of Japan in their women’s singles third-round match during Day Six of the 2024 Italian Open, May 11, 2024 at Foro Italico in Rome.

Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Two years ago Kasatkina called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “a full-blown nightmare.”

How does she see that nightmare ending now? “I don’t know,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t see the end right now. It seems like it’s stuck in one spot and doesn’t go anywhere. All I want is to finish as soon as possible. Like, hell situation. And it’s been too long.”

Five months after the invasion, Kasatkina, emboldened, made another statement she knew could trigger backlash in Russia, a country famously hostile to gay rights: She was in a relationship with another Russian athlete, Natasha Zabiiako, a former Olympic skater. 

When she announced her relationship on social media, Kasatkina said, “The reaction was loud! But I never regret about it, because I realize that it was keeping me so tight. Like, I couldn’t be exact, like, 100% myself in life, and then on the tennis court as well, because all these things are connected. After this, I just start to feel so much better.”

This volley of candor changed her life and her status, not least with her homeland.

Asked if her relationship with Russia is complicated, she replied, “Well, not exactly with Russia. I love my country. So, before the war started, I spent so good quality time there. I really was enjoying coming back there, spending time with my family, friends. I felt there, like, a fish in the water. 

“Now, probably not!” she laughed.

She was born in Tolyatti, an industrial city bisected by the Volga River, 600 miles east of Moscow. A natural athlete, Kasatkina was drawn to tennis. She turned pro as a teenager and by 2018, at age 21, she was one of the world’s top players, winning tournaments. During breaks from the tour, she relished returning home.

No more. She hasn’t been back to Russia since the invasion began more than two years ago. It’s been made clear that, at least in some corners, she’s not welcome. One Russian politician called for her to be labeled a foreign agent. 

“Well, yes, this guy actually works in the sport ministry,” Kasatkina said. “So he’s actually supposed to improve sport in our country, and support athletes. This action doesn’t seem exactly like that. Anyway, he didn’t succeed.”

Though three of her brothers have left the country and moved away to Canada, her elderly parents choose to remain in Russia. “I always worry about them – about them, about the people I love, of course,” Kasatkina said. “I can have my thoughts. But they are my parents. If I want them to respect my decisions, I have to respect their decisions.”

Now 27, she hopscotches the globe from tournament to tournament. But with no real base, she lives out of suitcases, putting in training blocks when and where she can.  She is, simultaneously, a tennis star and a tennis nomad. One week, it’s Dubai; another week, it’s a tennis academy in Spain, where “Sunday Morning” met her in April during a rare off-week. “Basically for me the best day off, it’s when I don’t have a plan for a day, where I can just do whenever, wherever I feel in the certain moment,” he said.

But she’s not alone.  She and Zabiiako go everywhere together, leading the kind of open life they feel they could not in Russia. 

Daria Kasatkina and Natasha Zabiiako in Spain.

CBS News

Zabiiako, who claims to have known “a little bit” about tennis when she first met Kasatkina, now travels the circuit. “I didn’t miss one game since we met,” she said.

To chronicle their journey, literally and metaphorically – and perhaps to find some sense of place – they produce a popular video series on YouTube. (Dasha is quick to note that Natasha does the heavy lifting.)

“I like that we have something to do together,” said Zabiiako. “I love that it helps you to relax a little bit, because things is so tough, and you can enjoy a little bit more.” 

But Kasatkina also confronts weightier topics online. When Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny died suspiciously in February, Kasatkina showed solidarity with Navalny’s widow. “He wanted to show that he’s not scared, he’s not afraid, and that people don’t have to be afraid,” Kasatkina said. “It was very brave for him. Maybe too brave, [because the payment] that he had to pay … was too high.”

Asked if she fears what the Russian government might do to her and her family, Kasatkina said, “Well, so far, I think I didn’t cross this line … so that they can do something. I hope not.”

Does she think there’s a line that she knows not to cross?

“There’s always a line,” she said.

She hasn’t ruled out returning to Russia; in fact, she is eager to. But first, she said, there are conditions the country would have to meet: “Obviously, war has to end,” she said. “And a few laws [have] to be changed.

Homophobic laws? “Yes. That has to be changed in order for me to feel safe going back. I’m missing my home, and one day I want to come back. When this day will come, nobody knows. But I will wait for it.

“When I was a kid, I wished that when I will grow up, I can do the right things,” she said. “So, seems like I didn’t betray that small girl.”

Kasatkina’s activism has not exacted a price on her tennis; she’s playing as well as ever. And she resists any suggestion she is following in the tradition of Billie Jean King, Arthur Ashe, and Martina Navratilova – tennis players who used their platforms to highlight injustice.

But her moral courage has been deeply affecting to her partner. Zabiiako said, “I’m proud of Dasha. Not only because of this, but I’m proud of her every day, even bad days. Doesn’t matter. I’m proud of you every day, every single day.”

Both Zabiiako and Kasatkina said they have “zero regrets” about the way they have come out and led their lives these past two years.

As for her message to fellow Russians, Kasatkina says it’s quite simple: “Don’t be scared. Everything’s gonna be all right,” she said, sounding a lot like Alexey Navalny. “Yeah, I really believe that love and kindness will win at the end.” 

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Story produced by Jon Carras and Aarthi Soler. Editor: Ed Givnish. 

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