DOHA, Qatar - A rollercoaster first-round clash between former Top 10 players at the Qatar Total Open saw No.11 seed Garbiñe Muguruza eventually survive qualifier Daria Kasatkina 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 in two hours and 49 minutes, the fourth-longest match of 2020 so far - having held a 5-2 lead and one match point in the second set.
The gripping contest, full of fluctuations and knife-edge games, was in keeping with the pair's rivalry, which has been characterized by dramatic, narrowly contested tilts almost every time they have played. Their three previous meetings all went to three sets, and twice featured escapes from match point down: in the second round of Brisbane 2017, Muguruza saved one before pulling out a 7-5, 3-6, 7-6(7) win, and the following year, in one of the most dramatic semifinals in Dubai's history, it was Kasatkina's turn to fend off three before triumphing 3-6, 7-6(11), 6-1. Two years on from that, facing each other in the Middle East again, the Russian nearly repeated the feat as she essayed a remarkable comeback - but this time, Muguruza would gather herself to come out on top of an edgy decider that featured seven consecutive breaks of serve, eventually tallying 50 winners to 69 unforced errors.
"I was expecting a tough match," stated Muguruza afterwards. "All the matches that we have played have been long and three sets and tough matches. So I was prepared for another type of match like that. I feel like I had a lot of opportunities maybe to step it up earlier, in the first set, in the second set... I think I could have played better at certain moments but the end it's a victory and I'm happy for it."
The 2016 Roland Garros and 2017 Wimbledon champion's resurgence in 2020 has seen her come out on the winning side of a number of matches like this - though she said that her fundamental approach had not changed since last year. "There's not a different approach, I really don't care what the score is," she told reporters. "A victory is a victory. I'm looking forward for tough matches, I'm not trying to be worried when it gets to a third set or something like that. Last year I played a lot of three-set matches, they didn't go my way - and this year I'm back at it again and just going more for it and being a little bit more patient. It's nothing really different that I'm thinking... just putting the fight and this year it's going my way."
Key to the outcome of a fascinating first set, with Muguruza seeking to storm the net at every opportunity, would be the quality of the Australian Open runner-up's approaches - as well as Kasatkina's ability to get her passing shots dipping low enough to test Muguruza's classic volleys, as the former World No.1 would invariably swat away drive volleys and smashes with little trouble.
Though Muguruza's power game seemed to be in fine fettle as she saved a break point in the first game, captured the Kasatkina serve in the next and held a point for a 3-0 lead, the subsequent passage of play illustrated the many ways in which the Russian's game has got under her skin in the past. Displaying quick thinking on the defence and clever placement of the ball around the court, Kasatkina ticked off three games in a row - twice breaking Muguruza after multi-deuce tussles - for a 3-2 lead, with the seeded player's groundstrokes proving erratic and her ventures forward frequently leading to Kasatkina outmanoeuvring her.
But the World No.16 would up her intensity for most of the rest of the set, bypassing Kasatkina's courtcraft in longer rallies with a renewed commitment to first-strike hammer blows. Twelve out of 14 points would go Muguruza's way as she powered to a 5-3 lead; although the two-time major champion would fail to serve the set out and was pegged back to 5-5, she retained the momentum to take five out of the opening act's last seven games, closing it out when Kasatkina, serving at 5-6, started with an untimely double fault and ended with a long forehand.
Having lost a 10-minute service game in the first set, Muguruza would seem seize control of the second by winning a 15-minute epic. Despite the loss of the first set, Kasatkina had not faltered - and in the fifth game made her move, coming up with a pair of fine passes to put Muguruza under pressure. In total, the World No.71 would hold five break points - but with her back to the wall, Muguruza held firm. The 26-year-old would find her biggest serves and sharpest drive volleys to fend off all five - and then a moment of real magic with a screaming forehand pass of her own followed by an emphatic smash to grind out the hold.
Brimming with ruthlessness, Muguruza pressed home her advantage by attacking the Kasatkina delivery with relish. A series of brutal returns took Muguruza to break point for 4-2, and Kasatkina wilted with her third double fault of the day.
But the former World No.10's dip would be short-lived. Tightening up every facet of her game, Kasatkina held firm as Muguruza lapsed into error when serving for the match. The Dubai quarterfinalist would reach match point, but squandered it with her fourth double fault of the day - while Kasatkina would combine stellar baseline defence with judicious sudden attacks, breaking back for 5-5 as Muguruza sent a backhand long and finding a backhand winner down the line to break again for 6-5. Buoyed once more, the two-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist successfully served the set out to force a decider.
"I feel like she always brings a very good level of tennis when she has to play me," mused Muguruza afterwards. "I think that... maybe she likes my game, I don't know, but we feel both very motivated to get the win and with the history of the matches we know that it's a battle."
That would be a decidedly edgy affair, and one ultimately decided by a confident Muguruza's capacity to continue going for her shots - and by her superior first serve, which garnered her 64% of the points behind it compared to Kasatkina's 52%. Indeed, though the 2018 Moscow champion was superior off the ground in the initial stages, her inability to take any of four break points in the first game followed by an implosion on serve - committing four double faults in her next two service games - would cost her dearly.
The set would feature seven straight breaks, with both players executing points with greater confidence on return than on serve: three times Muguruza punished the Kasatkina serve to move ahead, and three times a valiant Kasatkina pegged her back. That sequence was bookended by two key Muguruza holds, though: the opening game that enabled her to keep her nose in front throughout the third act - and, just when she needed it, a relatively fuss-free game to close out the match at the second time of asking, her final service winner belying the scenic route she had taken between the first and second match points. Up next for the 2018 runner-up will be Ajla Tomljanovic in the second round.