In a fierce battle of the WTA Rising Stars on a chilly Saturday evening in the Californian desert, it was Daria Kasatkina who edged out Monica Puig 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2) to book her place in the fourth round of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open. The 18-year-old Russian will look to continue her dream start to 2016 when she takes on 12th seed Timea Bacsinszky, who ended Eugenie Bouchard's run a couple hours prior.
Kasatkina Secures Decisive Break to Take Opener
After exchanging a pair of holds each to begin the match, it was Kasatkina who struck first, breaking at the third time of asking to take a 3-2 lead. Puig, however, had yet to drop more than three games in her first two matches, and quickly broke back to restore parity at 3-all.
Unfazed by the early setback, Kasatkina continued to apply pressure from the back of the court, moving Puig from side-to-side to intelligently construct her points. In the end, the Russian's persistence paid off as she converted her second break point to take a long and drawn out ninth game, thus opening up a 4-3 advantage. This time around, Kasatkina made no mistake when attempting to consolidate the break, doing so to open up a 5-3 lead while saving a break point in the process.
Keen to not drop the opening set without a fight, Puig did what she could to hold serve a game later, thus forcing Kasatkina to serve out the opening set up 5-4. In her first true test of the match, the 18-year-old passed with flying colours, saving a break point en route to closing out the first set 6-4 as a backhand from the Puerto Rican sailed into the tramlines.
Puig Holds On to Early Break; Forces A Decider
In the early stages of the second set, one could just sense that there was going to be a slight shift in momentum after an up and down opening set, which was clearly the case as Puig broke in the second game to take a 2-0 lead. Beginning to dictate with her fearsome forehand, the Puerto Rican number one easily consolidated the early break not long thereafter to open up a 3-0 advantage.
To her credit, Kasatkina did what she could to stay in touch with Puig, digging out of a 0-30 hole to get on the board with an impressive hold. However, the 22-year-old was not prepared to relinquish any control of the second set, and responded with an impressive hold of her own to further extend her lead to 4-1. With the momentum now swinging firmly in her favour, the Puerto Rican continued to press, and her persistence was eventually rewarded with a second break of serve as the Russian seemed to have gone off the boil. But moments after getting that insurance break, Puig told the umpire she needed a visit from the trainer during the next changeover to attend to a toe injury, adding even more drama to this thrilling third round encounter.
Kasatkina, however, was not going to go down so quietly, and came back swinging with a vengeance, her combinations of heavy hitting and consistency ultimately proving too much for Puig as the Russian recovered one of the two breaks against her. After two medical timeouts for Puig during the following changeover, Kasatkina seemed relatively unfazed, continuing her great run of momentum to reduce the deficit to 5-3. Suddenly, it was the 22-year-old Puerto Rican who was beginning to feel the pressure.
This time, however, Puig made no mistake, sealing the second set 6-3 with a big ace down the T. With the match going the distance, how would the Puerto Rican's injured foot hold up, and how would the Russian make the most of her opportunities in the decider?
Kasatkina Saves A Match Point; Wins Titanic Final Set
Early on in the final set, it became apparent that the toe injury she had picked up in the second set was starting to really bother Puig, as she did not have the same explosiveness in her movement or crispness in her footwork as she normally does. Taking full advantage, Kasatkina made the most of her opponent's misfortunes by jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the decider, sandwiching a break of serve in between a pair of holds. With the Russian beginning to play more within herself on the big points, would the Puerto Rican be able to mount a comeback?
Knowing she could no longer engage and win long exchanges from the back of the court, Puig began to take the ball even earlier -- almost going for broke -- and it started to pay off. With a series of big forehand winners paired with a few rare miscues from Kasatkina, the world number 67 was able to get on the board to reduce the deficit to 1-3. All of a sudden, that single hold of serve seemed to set Puig back into motion. With some massive, heavy hitting off the ground, the WTA Rising Star was able to break at the first time of asking to further reduce the deficit to 2-3. Suddenly, she went from being two points away from being down a double break to being back on serve; a true test of her ceaseless fighting qualities. Just a few minutes later, Puig was able to draw level at 3-all, overcoming some late resistance from Kasatkina in the process.
From there, the pair continued to trade blows from the back of the court which ultimately resulted in a pair of breaks until the ninth game, where the Puerto Rican was beginning to pull away with the match. Forcing the issue upon a tight Kasatkina, Puig was eventually rewarded with a crucial break to lead 5-4 and serve for the match.
In a titanic tenth game, the world number 67 jumped out to a 30-0 lead on her own serve before the world number 48 fought back. As the players fought harder, the rallies got longer as did the tension in the crisp, Californian desert air. Puig managed to earn herself her first match point but missed a backhand straight into the net. That single backhand unforced error seemed to be the turning point in the match as Kasatkina seemed to come to life again, eventually converting her third break point to draw even at 5-all. All of a sudden, it was now the Russian who was in the ascendancy. Thanks to a few loose errors from the Puerto Rican in the minutes that followed, the 18-year-old was able to hold before giving herself two match points of her own. To the credit of Puig, she refused to back down, saving both with some fearless hitting before forcing a dramatic final set tiebreak.
In the seven-point shootout, it was Puig who earned the early mini-break but from then on, it was all Kasatkina; the Russian utilizing her heavy ground strokes to dictate and win the tiebreak 7-2. And with it, she sealed a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, 7-6(2) victory in a couple of minutes shy of the two hour and 45 minute mark -- a huge result for an 18-year-old who continues to impress in her dream start to 2016.