CHARLESTON, SC, USA -- Reigning Volvo Car Open champion Daria Kasatkina got through a difficult match to open her title defense, as the No.3 seed from Russia overcame American Christina McHale, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, on Tuesday night.

Kasatkina, who defeated Jelena Ostapenko in last year’s championship match, picked up her second win in two meetings with McHale, claiming a two-hour and 16-minute second-round victory to kick off her 2018 Charleston campaign, following an opening-round bye.

The World No.12 maneuvered through a match filled with wild shifts of momentum, reeling off six-game streaks to win both the first set and the final set. Kasatkina had 29 winners to 27 by McHale, and only three fewer unforced errors than the American, exemplifying the closeness of the encounter.

In the third round, the Russian No.1 will face the winner of Wednesday’s match between No.13 seed Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania and American qualifier Claire Liu.

Despite falling to Kasatkina at the US Open last year in their only previous meeting, McHale came out of the blocks strongly, breaking Kasatkina in the opening game with a backhand winner, then holding for 2-0 with a strongly-struck volley on game point. McHale broke an error-prone Kasatkina once more to go up two breaks at 3-0, and Kasatkina expressed her anxiety to her coach following that game.

Immediately following that point, though, the set turned. Kasatkina got on the board by breaking McHale in an 18-point game, closing the gap to 3-1 on her fifth break point. McHale's level started to dip while Kasatkina demonstrated the weight and depth of shot which make her a formidable clay-court opponent, and the Russian broke again to pull to 3-3.

Serving at 3-4, McHale fell behind 0-40, but pulled back to deuce, desperately trying to keep pace with an energized Kasatkina. But another long game went to the Russian, once more breaking on a fifth break point with an angled forehand winner. Kasatkina closed out the opener in the next game, picking off six games in a row to take the one-set lead.

McHale persisted, holding in the first game of the second set to quash the Kasatkina streak. The American, ranked 86th in the world, claimed the first break of the set to lead 3-1 after a Kasatkina forehand went long.

After a cluster of errors by McHale, Kasatkina got back on serve at 4-3, but McHale broke right back to lead 5-3 and serve for the second set. Fallible returning by the Russian brought McHale to double set point, and while Kasatkina saved one with a forehand winner, she was less fortunate on the second, spraying a service return long and watching the match go to a deciding set.

McHale continued to clutch the momentum as the third set began. A visibly frustrated Kasatkina was broken in the first game of the set, as the Russian's vaunted forehand was routinely flying outside the lines. After holding for 2-0, it seemed that McHale might upset the titleholder and clinch her first Top 20 victory since defeating Sloane Stephens in Beijing last year.

But Kasatkina, the runner-up at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells one month ago, had other designs. The players started to regularly find themselves in lengthy backhand-to-backhand rallies, each trying to avoid the other's forehand, and as the final set wore on, Kasatkina was more frequently the victor of those points.

Kasatkina found and cracked a forehand to get back on serve at 2-2, and then saved a break point in the next game, eventually holding for 3-2 with one of her two aces of the match. McHale then got herself involved in another barnburner on her serve, and the relentless forehands by Kasatkina finally took their toll when McHale double faulted on the fifth break point of the game.

After that long, emotional game, McHale became deflated, while Kasatkina thrived. The Russian held at love to take a 5-2 lead, winning that game with a backhand winner off of a McHale drop shot. McHale then dropped serve at love, allowing Kasatkina to complete another six-game streak to win the match, which included winning the final ten points of the tilt. 

More to follow...