ABU DHABI, U.A.E. -- Former World No.10 Daria Kasatkina rallied from a break down in the third to defeat China's Wang Qiang 6-2, 3-6, 6-2 in the first round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open. The Russian rallied from a break down in the decider to win the last six games of the match, winning in one hour and 48 minutes.
Kasatkina enjoyed a comfortable edge going into Wednesday's opening match-up. The two played five times previously, with the Russian winning four times. Despite the lopsided head-to-head, their prior showdowns had been tight affairs. All but one of their matches have gone the distance, including their last, which came at the 2018 WTA Elite Trophy. Kasatkina narrowly edged out the home favorite, 6-1, 2-6, 7-5 in round-robin play.
"The first match after a long stop is never easy," Kasatkina told reporters after the win. "I was not that nervous but I felt my stomach a little bit. The match was tough, three sets."
Under clear blue skies and perfect playing conditions, Kasatkina came flying out of the gate, jumping to a quick 2-0 lead and winning the first nine points of the match. Controlling the court with her forehand and smartly building points to get Wang on the run, Kasatkina played flawlessly to pocket the opener 6-2 in less than 25 minutes. She fired 10 winners to 6 unforced errors, while Wang struggled to find a way past Kasatkina's steady, balanced movement at the back of the court, hitting 1 winner to 10 unforced errors.
Importantly, the Russian's serve was impervious in the opening set. Serving at 77.8%, Kasatkina lost just two points on serve over her four service games, while going perfect on her own break point chances, breaking Wang's serve twice.
The early rust was understandable for Wang. The Chinese No.1 did not play after the tour resumed last summer due to a lower back injury and Wednesday's match was her first since the 2020 Qatar Total Open. With new coach Pat Cash watching courtside, Wang kept her cool after the quick opening set and slowly began to find her rhythm. While Kasatkina's forehand dominated the opening set, Wang's forehand turned the tables in the second set.
"It's always difficult to come back after the pre-season because you can play very good in practices and beat everyone in practice matches, but then you come to a tournament and it's a completely different feeling," Kasatkina said. "You have nerves. Everything is different. It's not easy to manage these things at the beginning of the season."
With the Russian unable to hold her level, Wang's footwork became sharper and her baseline aggression more pronounced. Behind heavy-hitting and better court positioning, Wang was able to push Kasatkina off the baseline and control the points. On her first break point of the match at 2-1, 30-40, Wang converted easily off an errant Kasatkina forehand.
At 4-1 up, Wang earned three breakpoints for a double-break lead. Kasatkina gamely saved them all with clutch serving, and Wang's disappointment over being unable to get the insurance nearly carried over into her next service game. After a handful of loose points, Wang fell behind 4-2, 15-40, and Kasatkina looked poised to get the set back on serve.
Instead, Wang showed her match toughness. From 15-40, China's top player faced down her only breakpoints of the set and came out on top, playing four smart points to slam the door and hold. Two games later she calmly served out the set at 6-3 to close out a remarkable turnaround. After being outhit 10 winners to 1 in the first set, Wang turned the tables, firing 11 winners to Kasatkina's 8 in the second set.
"She was very dangerous today, the running forehand especially," Kasatkina said. "She was playing really good contrast today. Today I was managing better the third set even if I was down 2-0. I was going the way I wanted to play. I wasn't giving the points for free and I think that was the key."
The final set would pit Wang's barrage of forehands against Kasatkina's canny counterpunching, and it was the Russian's resiliency that proved the difference. Wang broke early for a 2-0 lead, continuing the aggressive hitting that pocketed her the second set.
But Kasatkina steadied herself to hold and then took advantage of a soft game from Wang to get back on serve at 2-2. From there, Wang's relentless attacking buckled under Kasatkina's smart baseline pressure and the Chinese star began to miss more than she made.
The turning point came with Wang serving at 2-3. After saving a breakpoint at 30-40 with a fantastic forehand winner, Wang misfired on two unforced errors to give Kasatkina the break advantage. At deuce, Wang netted an easy forehand put-away and then played a passive approach shot that gave Kasatkina time for a vicious forehand pass that Wang netted. With the break in hand, Kasatkina capped off her comeback. In all, the Russian would win the final six games of the match to earn her first win of the 2021 season. Kasatkina finished the match with 20 winners to 24 unforced errors, while Wang's errors proved her undoing, hitting 24 winners to 42 unforced errors.
"I had nine months not playing a tournament," Wang said after the match. "I think I played not bad in this match, especially in the second set. In the final set I lost my concentration a little bit, so she won the match. I look forward to my next match. It's very good. Me and my coach are on the right way."
Kasatkina faces either 12th seed Karolina Muchova or Danka Kovinic in the second round.
"They're playing different kind of styles, both of them. I will see tomorrow. I will watch the match obviously, because in these few months many things could change in their games. I have to just be prepared for what I will see tomorrow. But for sure it will be very tough, very tough opponents."