A brave champion caps off a wonderful week for the Silicon Valley Classic

Women’s tennis has made a statement in the Bay Area over the past week.

It’s healthy, fun, popular. And full of surprises.

The Silicon Valley Classic featured talented young athletes, packed houses and global stories.

The woman who won the tournament, Russian Daria Kasatkina, was not the biggest name in the field. But it was perhaps the most interesting story. She’s the highest-ranked Russian woman in the game, but a few weeks ago she did two things to irritate her country: she came out as gay and she spoke out strongly against the invasion of Ukraine by Russia.

So not only the top ranked, but the bravest. And a champion worthy of a tournament founded by pioneer Billie Jean King.

“I wish you love and happiness,” said Kasatkina, who fell on the pitch at the end of the game, then jumped up and hugged her girlfriend, “and world peace.”

The crowd screamed.

Sunday’s final was another sold-out session with 2,250 fans packed into the temporary tennis stadium on the San Jose State campus, helping the event set a San Jose attendance record.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – AUGUST 07: Daria Kasatkina of Russia holds the trophy after defeating Shelby Rogers in the singles final at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, part of the Hologic WTA Tour, at Spartan Tennis Complex on August 07, 2022 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

When the tournament left Stanford in 2018, we wondered how the fans would react. Attendance lagged and there was no tournament in 2020 due to the pandemic.

But this year’s rebound – and four consecutive days of sold-out sessions and a record 23,250 venues – is a testament not only to the end of COVID restrictions, but also to the health of women’s football.

The tournament was full of surprises. Maybe not the right kind, if you really wanted to see Coco Gauff or Naomi Osaka in the final. But the final between Rogers – an unseeded player who had ousted first seed Maria Sakkari – and Kasatkina, the seventh seed, was highly entertaining.

After coming back from a 4-2 deficit to win a tiebreaker in the first set, Rogers faded. Kasatkina overcame her shaky serve with her athleticism and stamina to dominate the final two sets.

The crowd was pro-Rogers, not only because she was an American playing against a Russian, but also because she hadn’t won a singles title in 13 years as a pro.

“A winner is just a loser who doesn’t give up,” Rogers said in tears after his match. “I hope I will come back here.”

Kasatkina made the French Open semi-finals, losing to eventual champion Iga Swiatek. But Kasatkina was banned from playing at Wimbledon due to her nationality and fallout from the invasion of Ukraine.

But that didn’t stop her from making news in July. In a video interview with Russian tennis vlogger Vitya Kravchenko, recorded in Barcelona where Kasatkina currently lives and trains, she was candid and brave.

She came out as gay, revealing she had a girlfriend. And she took a bold stand against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, calling it a “full-fledged nightmare” that she thinks about every day.

Both statements – about her sexuality and her anti-war stance – are extremely problematic for a Russian national. Vladimir Putin has banned all criticism of the invasion of Ukraine, as well as virtually all LBGTQ advocacy in Russia.

“It’s really brave of her and a lot of people are really proud of her,” Rogers said. “She always has a smile on her face and it’s just a joy to be with her. So she’s doing really well. She’s a strong girl.

On the video, Kasatkina expressed doubts that gay Russians could ever live openly.

“Seriously, if it’s a choice no one would choose to be gay, why make life difficult for yourself, especially in Russia? ” she says. “But living at peace with yourself is the only thing that matters.”

During the Silicon Valley Classic, Kasatkina said she felt freer since coming out and posted a photo of her girlfriend – figure skater Natalia Zabiako – with the caption “my cute pie”.

“I have nothing to hide,” she said.

But she wasn’t as eager to repeat her views on Ukraine, saying she wasn’t as comfortable talking about the issue in English and it was easier for her to talk about it. chat in their mother tongue.

On the video, spoken in Russian but subtitled in English, Kasatkina said her strongest wish was “for the war to end. … We cannot change events. It makes you feel helpless.

She spoke with empathy about Ukrainian athletes who have nowhere to train.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to not have a home,” she said.

But the reality is that Kasatkina may not have a country of origin after her comments.

Kravchenko asked her if she was afraid that she would never be able to return to Russia.

“Yeah, I thought about it,” she said. And then burst into tears.

For a week, she found a home in San Jose.

Ann Killion is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: akillion@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @annkillion

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