ZHUHAI, China -- No.1 seed Daria Kasatkina of Russia picked up a hard-fought victory in her opening round-robin match in the Azalea Group at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Tuesday, outlasting home country favorite Wang Qiang, 6-1, 2-6, 7-5.
"For sure, [Wang] improved her game so much and always we have big, big matches," Kasatkina said, during her post-match press conference. "We never have, like, the easy one. Today we played another big match, so it's more and more difficult to play against her."
Kasatkina, enjoying her first stint in the Top 10 of the WTA rankings, barely survived a one-hour and 55-minute battle with the top-ranked player from China, as the World No.10 got through a final set which featured nine consecutive breaks of service to improve her head-to-head record against Wang to 4-1.
The two players held 28 break points between them, and Kasatkina took nine of her 12 chances, just edging out Wang in that statistic, who was a less consistent 8-for-16. World No.22 Wang won slightly more of her first-service points in the match (53 percent to 49 percent for Kasatkina), but the Russian got far more first serves into play, with 72 percent to Wang's 54 percent.
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"I feel more confident in the return, like, I don't know, just from the nature," Kasatkina said. "I just feel where to go, how to go. That's it."
The opening set started quite competitively, with a lengthy game on Kasatkina’s serve at 1-1 proving to be pivotal. The Russian hit three double faults during the game, each time bringing up a break point for Wang, but she erased them all. After Kasatkina hit deuce for the third time, Wang lost the next two points with long returns, and the top seed escaped with a service hold for 2-1.
After that game, Kasatkina lost only two more points in the set. Having squandered her chances in the previous game, Wang dropped serve at love to hand Kasatkina a 3-1 lead, and it was off to the races for the Russian as she held for 4-1 with an ace. Two games later, the Russian coolly served out the set, converting her first set point by forcing an error with one of her imposing forehands.
In the second set, though, the tables turned tremendously, as Wang rebounded from dropping serve in the first game to break Kasatkina four out of four times. The Russian lost her initial break advantage with a double fault to allow Wang to get level at 1-1, and the Chinese player soon broke Kasatkina at love with a scorching forehand winner to lead 3-1.
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Kasatkina got back on serve in the following game, but Wang amped up her aggressive play from there. After regaining the break lead at 4-2, Wang garnered a crucial hold at love with a winning drop volley. Leading 5-2, stirring groundstrokes by the Chinese No.1 allowed her to break the Russian once more, tying the match at one set apiece.
The third set was a rip-roaring affair. After a hold by each player to open the decider, nine consecutive breaks of serve followed, as Kasatkina and Wang were teeing off on each other’s serves and grueling rallies tended to fall the returner’s way.
Wang came closer to holding serve during the middle stages of the set, possessing game points at 3-3 and 4-4 which could have given her important holds to stop the string of breaks and spur on momentum. But, in each of those instances, the Chinese player fired an unforced error to give Kasatkina the opportunity to get through those games, which the Russian always took.
Finally, it was the Russian who pulled her service together at the very end, firing an error-forcing forehand down the line at 30-30 to gain an infrequent game point on her serve -- which also happened to be a match point. A forehand error by Wang on that point wrapped up the encounter in favor of the Russian.