When Russian tennis star Daria Kasatkina said in an interview in July last year that she has a girlfriend, the vlogger asking the questions — Vitya Kravchenko — said her confirmation would generate “overwhelming interest.”
He was right. Reuters and Associated Press sent the news out on the wires; CNN and the Washington Post were among those to report it too; and the LGBT Network, an equality group in Kasatkina’s homeland, described her coming out as “monumental.”
Eighteen months later, Kasatkina has become increasingly vocal and visible, all while maintaining her top-20 ranking (she’s currently at No. 18) in the fiercely competitive world of the WTA.
As if that wasn’t pressure enough, the 26-year-old has often found herself on the frontline of LGBTQ advocacy in sports as well, at a time when Russian politicians are attempting to roll the country back to the Dark Ages.
The LGBT Network and organizations like it are now branded “extremist” in law. The vagueness of the wording makes it all the more terrifying.
For all of this and more, WTA player Daria Kasatkina is Outsports’ 2023 Female Hero of the Year.
Kasatkina could have chosen to stay silent. After all, she still has family and friends back home to worry about. The potential impact on loved ones continues to prevent many athletes globally from coming out, let alone becoming activists.
Like most professional women’s tennis players, she is sent a lot of online hate. Add in the fact that she is an out gay woman from a country that is waging a “war on woke” alongside an actual invasion of a foreign power, we can only imagine the vitriol that must come her way.
Yet she has continued to denounce Putin’s war, and is quite rightly unapologetic about her love for girlfriend, Natalia Zabiiako, who won Olympic figure skating silver at PyeongChang 2018 in the team event.
The couple have posted over 50 videos of their various tennis and travel adventures to their YouTube channel since it launched in November 2022, delivering well over a million views to date.
Back in January, Kasatkina mentioned the difficulty of being separated from her parents for long periods of time. She explained that the warmth of the tennis community towards her — including immediately after her coming out — was a great comfort.
Meanwhile, in a revelation that should empower others, she also told The Guardian that she was feeling a sense of freedom both on and off the court since sharing her personal news and taking such a strong anti-war stance.
“When you have to think about tennis but also to think about deep things inside your head, it’s just not good,” she said.
“I remember after saying all these things, I just felt much better. That was one of the best decisions of the last year and I’m happy with the outcome. And thanks to the people who were next to me supporting me.”
At Wimbledon, she was even more forthright. The suggestion of returning to the city where she grew up, Tolyatti (the Russian equivalent of Detroit), at some point soon was a complete non-starter.
“As a gay person who opposes the war, it’s not possible to go back,” she told the Sunday Times.
“But I don’t regret it even one percent. When the war started and everything turned to hell, I felt very overwhelmed and I just decided, ‘F*** it all.’
“I couldn’t hide any more. I wanted to say my position on the war and my [sexuality], which was tough, coming from a country where being gay is not accepted, but it felt like I had a backpack of stones on my shoulders and I just had to throw it off.
“Afterwards, I faced a few consequences, but the only thing that worried me was my parents, and they were fine. They are proud of me.”
The on-court peak of Kasatkina’s 2023 was matching her best-ever US Open singles showing, a run to the last 16 where she lost to eventual runner-up Arya Sabalenka. She was even the winner of an LGBTQ landmark match along the way.
By that time, she had said that in WTA competitions, she would prefer to play under a Pride rainbow flag than a “neutral” flag. That was a comment seemingly made in jest, but she was serious about the grim situation back home for LGBTQ people like her.
“The laws in our country are getting worse and worse,” she told the New York Times.
“I realize to be a gay person in Russia, it’s becoming impossible. And all this together makes me say what I feel and what I want to say.”
She was also prepared to speak honestly about the prospect of WTA tournaments in Saudi Arabia, where the human rights of women are limited, and those of LGBTQ people non-existent. Some skirted around the issue, but Kasatkina nailed it — “money talks”.
More recently, she has claimed the abuse players get on social media is “completely out of control” (mostly the messages are from men angry after losing a bet). However, that doesn’t stop her from engaging with some of her fans in the most empowering way.
When one user shared on X that she had come out to her mother who had then reacted negatively, Kasatkina was right there with a supportive comment.
Its gonna be alright Enjoy being yourself— Daria Kasatkina (@DKasatkina) November 15, 2023
The fan responded: “Thank you so much Dasha… all this support gives me faith that everything will be fine.”
Just a fortnight later, Russia’s Supreme Court delivered its chilling anti-LGBTQ judgement. Activists who fall foul of the loosely-worded law face a jail term of up to 12 years. Even just having a Pride flag visible risks a potential spell in detention.
Putin loves to lionize those Russian athletes who remain loyal to him, extolling them as exemplars of the motherland’s sporting might and physical prowess.
But none of them can compete with Kasatkina for strength of character. She recognizes her responsibility in all but exile — that by dedicating herself to elite sport while living her life openly as a proud lesbian, she can help to give a little hope to those who dream of a better tomorrow.
Not least the young LGBTQ Russians caught in the ever-rising tide of homophobia. As they await the day when they are free to be true to themselves and others, the vicarious thrill of following Kasatkina is a feeling that’s worth holding onto.
Other athletes considered for the award:
- The Las Vegas Aces made it back-to-back WNBA titles in 2023. The team’s head coach Becky Hammon, an Outsports Power List top-20 name, is one of the great LGBTQ role models of women’s sport anywhere in the world.
- From a group of nearly 100 out players at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, there were several heroines. The love story of Australia’s Sam Kerr and the USA’s Kristie Mewis continued to capture the imagination, even more so when we learned of their engagement.
- Ireland’s Sinead Farrelly earned her plaudits at club level — an NWSL champion alongside Mana Shim with NJ/NY Gotham FC, the two players came full circle having blown the whistle on alleged abuses they suffered at previous club Portland Thorns.
- Denounced in national media, Ebrar Karakurt rose above the anti-gay din to take Turkey’s national women’s volleyball team to extraordinary new heights. Paris 2024 promises more to come.
- Sophie McKinna is a British Olympic shot putter who found the conundrum of coming out publicly to be a real “battle” in her own mind. Having won that contest, there’s a new sense of personal best.
Previous winners of the Outsports Female Hero of the Year Award
2022: Callan Chythlook-Sifsof
2021: Raven Saunders
2020: Natasha Cloud
2018: Sam Rapoport
2017: Katie Sowers
2016: Elena Delle Donne
2015: Layshia Clarendon
2014: Karen Morrison