PALERMO, Italy -- Homeland hope Jasmine Paolini triumphed in a grueling opener at the Palermo Ladies Open on Monday night, outlasting former Top 10 player Daria Kasatkina of Russia, 5-7, 6-4, 6-4 in Sicily.
"It means a lot," Paolini told the press, after her win. "[It] was so emotional, because it’s in Italy, the first match, against Kasatkina. So, I’m very, very happy."
Paolini’s only career win over a Top 20 player had come over the Russian in Prague in 2018, but Kasatkina had won two of their three previous encounters, including the her most recent clay-court match-win, which came in the first round of Roland Garros in 2019.
Nevertheless, WTA World No.95 Paolini triumphed after three hours and nine minutes of topsy-turvy play, where the duo combined for 21 breaks of service. Paolini was more efficient on her break points, converting 11 of 16, while WTA World No.66 Kasatkina had 34 chances to break and only took 10 of them.
"It was a tough match with a tough opponent," said Paolini. "I knew that I’d have to play so many balls to make the point, and I just thought during the match: ‘Keep going, play every single point.’"
In the second round, Paolini will face either No.5 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium or Belarusian qualifier Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Kasatkina opened the match with a service break in the very first game, and the Russian had chances to extend her lead even further as the set progressed. It seemed as though the Russian had carried her solid form from her most recent event, where she made her first semifinal run of the season at the inaugural Open 6ème Sens - Métropole de Lyon in March.
Paolini, though, held her nerve when her back was against the wall on home soil, fending off two break points at 3-1 and three more break points at 4-2 to stay close in the opening frame. Deft dropshots by Paolini during the hold for 4-3 were solid counters for the heavy depth and determined defense Kasatkina put on display.
With Kasatkina serving for the one-set lead at 5-4, the dogged play from Paolini paid off, as the Italian fended off four set points with improved returning. A double fault on the third deuce of the game suddenly gave Paolini a break point, which she took with an overhead winner to level the set at 5-5.
Parity was short-lived, however, as Kasatkina recovered her lead in the next game, earning another break after a netted forehand by the Italian. With a second chance to close out the set, Kasatkina made no mistakes, converting her fifth set point with a forehand that passed over Paolini for a winner.
The returners were firmly in control of the second set, as the first six games went against serve. With the players jockeying for the lead, Paolini did well to fend off two break points and end the string of service breaks with what would turn out to be a decisive hold for 4-3.
She then took command with another break for 5-3, giving herself a chance to serve out the set. However, Kasatkina converted her third break point of that game with a return winner off the baseline, pulling her back on serve at 5-4.
The second set, though, ended with Paolini on the ascendancy, as more excellent returns by the Italian led to her fifth break of the set. Paolini won 84 percent of Kasatkina’s second-service points in the second set, while the 23-year-old let 13 of a whopping 17 break points go begging during that frame.
The cavalcade of breaks continued in the decider, as eight straight games went against serve en route to 4-4. But Paolini was continuing to be more dominant on the return than Kasatkina was in the final set: the Italian only allowed Kasatkina two points in the Russian's first three service games of the set.
After Paolini broke for 4-4 with a backhand winner, the Italian suddenly held with ease for 5-4, ending a stretch of time where 17 of the previous 18 games had fallen the way of the returner. Kasatkina had to match that feat to stay in the clash, but Paolini was undeterred, blasting a backhand winner down the line to reach match point.
There, a final forehand miscue from the Russian allowed Paolini to polish off the lengthy affair and reach the second round on home soil, putting her one win away from matching her quarterfinal result at the event in 2019.