No.8 seed Daria Kasatkina was forced to work hard to quell the challenge of surging qualifier Clara Tauson at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, eventually holding off the teenager 6-4, 7-6(0) in one hour and 51 minutes.
"Always to play at home, it’s something special," Kasatkina said, in her post-match press conference. "Especially the first match is always tricky, but I’m happy with the level of the game and how the match was going, and happy to play another match at home with the crowd."
In a match that saw 11 breaks of serve in total, Kasatkina just about kept her nose in front throughout. Her lead rarely looked safe, though, as Tauson repeatedly hit rich mini-veins of form to threaten a comeback.
"Of course it means a lot, because every match you win at home, it counts twice," Kasatkina said. "I wasn’t happy about my draw, when I found out the qualifier I’m going to play! But it was a very good match and I was happy that I was able to get it."
All eyes had been on the main draw placement of the 18-year-old Tauson, who lifted her maiden WTA trophy in Lyon a fortnight ago and whose qualifying run in St. Petersburg had extended her winning streak to 13 matches, including 20 straight sets. The resurgent Kasatkina, herself a 2021 titlist at the Phillip Island Trophy, made for a tantalizing clash.
The Russian has historically thrived indoors at home, having been runner-up in Moscow in 2017 and champion a year later. Moreover, the breadth of the former World No.10's repertoire and impeccable retrieving posed a new challenge to Tauson, competing in just her fourth WTA main draw.
"Clara was playing super aggressive, and I know that’s why she won in Lyon, because probably she likes to play indoors a lot," Kasatkina said. "She’s going to be very dangerous on the hardcourts and indoors especially."
Kasatkina's most dominant passage of play was at the start of the match. The 23-year-old mixed up spins and placement to goad Tauson into a series of wild errors, and built a 5-2 lead.
But Tauson's resistance from that point on would characterize the rest of the match. With her back to the wall, the World No.96 came up with her biggest backhands, as well as adroit moves to the net.
Tauson would ultimately break Kasatkina on three of the four occasions the home player served for each set. An off-court medical timeout for the teenager after being broken for 1-2 in the second set was also the trigger for renewed ferocity in her hitting on return.
Kasatkina would need to draw on all her experience to prevent Tauson from fully seizing momentum, as well as a touch of magic to set her on the right track in the second-set tiebreak. A marvellous flicked pass off a Tauson dropshot put Kasatkina up 2-0, and the World No.58 rode that advantage all the way to a tiebreak whitewash and a second-round date with Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Tauson may have lost, but there was success for two of her fellow teenage qualifiers. Kamilla Rakhimova, 19, scored her second WTA-level main draw win with a topsy-turvy 6-1, 6-7(2), 6-1 defeat of wildcard and WTA debutante Daria Mishina. World No.150 Rakhimova, whose breakthrough came with an upset of Shelby Rogers in the first round of Roland Garros last year, struck 31 winners over the course of the all-Russian derby.
Elsewhere Wang Xinyu, 19, came through a dramatic tilt against Viktoriya Tomova 6-1, 5-7, 7-5. The Chinese World No.159 led 5-2 with a double break in the final set, but missed four match points on Tomova's serve at 5-3. Nonetheless, Wang steadied herself to close out her first WTA main draw victory since Tianjin 2019 on her fifth match point.
The night session continued with more strong performances by Russians on home soil. First, Margarita Gasparyan claimed a 6-7(1), 6-1, 6-1 upset of No.7 seed Kristina Mladenovic of France.
Mladenovic has posted some of her best career singles results in St. Petersburg, winning her sole singles title at the event in 2017, and returning to the final in 2018.
However, it was Russian wildcard Gasparyan who triumphed in a two-and-a-half hour barnburner to thrill the partisan crowds, avenging her loss to Mladenovic in the Frenchwoman's home country just two weeks ago in Lyon.
Mladenovic had multiple extended service games in the opening set but was still able to push it into a tiebreak, where she dominated and claimed a difficult one-set lead after a staggering 81 minutes of play.
However, the remainder of the match was completely different as Gasparayn wrested the momentum away from the former champion. Gasparyan fired 14 winners to just four unforced errors in the second set as she charged to level the affair at one set apiece.
Excellent angles and pristine passes flew off Gasparyan's racquet as she was equally commanding in the final set, completing her come-from-behind victory and setting up a second-round clash with Katerina Siniakova of the Czech Republic.
All told, Gasparyan slammed 37 winners to 21 unforced errors against Mladenovic, and held 18 break points in the match, converting seven.
In the nightcap, No.5 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova made a successful return to the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy as she eased past lucky loser Cagla Buyukakcay of Turkey, 6-4, 6-4.
Pavlyuchenkova, a two-time quarterfinalist at the event in 2018 and 2019, hit 25 winners as she claimed her 90-minute victory over Buyukakcay, who was making her St. Petersburg main-draw debut.
Pavlyuchenkova failed to serve out the opening set at 5-2, but she would not make the same mistake twice as she used strong deliveries to close out the one-set lead on her second time of asking.
A break for 3-2, on her fourth break point of a lengthy game, was all Pavlyuchenkova needed to move and remain ahead in the second set as she slid into the second round.