Kasatkina First Russian St. Petersburg Champion

Daria Kasatkina (photo: @Formula_TX/Twitter)

ST. PETERSBURG/WASHINGTON, March 21, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

When wild card Margarita Gasparyan and No. 8 seed Daria Kasatkina met to decide the final of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy Sunday afternoon, one thing was certain: there was guaranteed to be a Russian champion for the first time in the tournament’s six-year history.

It’s unfortunate that what began as a promising title match between two eager and worthy opponents ended much too soon with Gasparyan’s retirement due to a lower back injury early in the second set. At the time of the retirement, Kasatkina led the final 6-3, 2-1 after 51 minutes of play.

At least, the appreciative fans who filled Sibur Arena, located at the head of the Gulf of Finland in Russia’s Second City, were treated to a very colorful and elaborate – at times over-the-top – concert and trophy ceremony that lasted nearly as long as the match. It was filled full of Russian techno-pop and rock music, some spoken word tributes plus dancers and high-wire acrobats that made both players smile and feel appreciated. Least of all, it reminded everyone that St. Petersburg is Russia’s cultural capital.

While Gasparyan had won titles in both of her previous WTA finals, the last time she lifted a trophy was back in 2018 at Tashkent. Now, she’ll have to wait a little longer. Meanwhile, Kasatkina (12-5 following her St. Petersburg title victory) arrived at Sunday’s final biding to win multiple titles in a single season for the first time in her career. A title triumph would also make her the first repeat champion on the WTA tour this season. Last month, Kasatkina won the Phillips Island Trophy in Melbourne.

Despite the abbreviated final, it was mission accomplished for the 23-year-old Kasatkina. Now, she’s 4-3 in finals appearances. By winning the St. Petersburg crown, Kasatkina has now lifted half of her sterling hardware in Russia following her 2018 title in Moscow.

Kasatkina’s week began with a victory over rising Danish teen star Clara Tauson, continued with a win over Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, followed by an upset of No. 2 seed Veronika Kudermetova in the quarterfinals. Then, she knocked off No. 4 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in Saturday’s semifinals by coming from behind. Finally, she triumphed against Gasparyan to grab the title.

In just their first meeting, Kasatkina jumped out to a quick 3-1 lead after breaking Gasparyan in each of her first two service games. Although she was broken back, Kasatkina played from the advantage of being ahead throughout much of the opening set.

Then came a medical time out for Gasparyan, after she trailed 1-4, which allowed her to receive treatment on her ailing back. Despite curtailing action for nine minutes, it didn’t seem to upset Kasatkina’s rhythm. Serving for the set at 5-3, Kasatkina put it away on her third set-point opportunity after Gasparyan tried to hit a forehand down the line that landed wide of its mark. It abruptly ended an eight-shot rally after 39 minutes of play.

At the start of the second set, Gasparyan’s serve was immediately broken, but she got the break back in the next game. However, the 26-year-old Moscow native was broken again when Kasatkina converted her second break-point opportunity in third game, finishing the task with a 12-point rally that went in her favor. Then, during the changeover, Gasparyan signaled that she couldn’t play on and went over to shake Kasatkina’s hand after just 51 minutes. As soon as it was official, Kasatkina, known by all as Dasha, dashed over to hug her coach, Carlos Martinez Comet.

Afterward, during her virtual press conference, Gasparyan spoke to Tennis TourTalk about the difficulty of retiring from the final. “It was a really tough decision for me,” she said. “Of course, I’m really sad I couldn’t finish the match. I have to think about my health. Now, I just want to recover and be in shape.”

Despite the outcome, Gasparyan had much to feel proud about her week. It included winning four straight matches – the last one was her 50th career tour-level victory – to reach her third career WTA final. Gasparyan’s win-loss record improved to 9-5 and her world ranking will rise from No. 126 to No. 85 when the WTA Rankings are updated Monday.

“Of course, I am proud of myself. I played really well this week. I think I showed how I can play. This is the important thing for me. I just want to keep this level and play like this,” she said.

When it was time for Kasatkina to sit for her virtual press conference with English-language and Russian-speaking media, the Togliatty, Russia native was joined by her classic-looking silver-colored St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy.

Tennis TourTalk asked Kasatkina how it felt to be the first repeat champion on the WTA tour this year and what winning title has done for her confidence – not to mention her world ranking, which will skyrocket from 61st to 38th next week.

“It feels great! I cannot say anything else. It’s an amazing feeling to win the title,” said Kasatkina, breaking out a big smile as she responded. “Now, I’m just enjoying the moment and for sure it’s giving me confidence. My coach told me, ‘the best medicine is to win matches.’ It’s 100 percent true.”

When Tennis TourTalk queried Kasatkina about what she was most proud of from winning her second career title in Russia this week, she answered: “The way I was able to manage the pressure, the matches, everything. I felt different during this tournament and I’m really proud of that. It’s difficult to say now because I’m in a very good mood. I just very proud of myself.”

Kichenok/Olaru win first doubles title together

No. 1 seeds Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine and Raluca Olaru of Romania won the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy doubles title with a 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 comeback victory over No. 2 seeds Kaitlyn Christian and Sabrina Santamaria, both of the United States.

After splitting the first two sets, Kichenok (ranked 54th) and Olaru (ranked 48th) rallied from 3-6 in the super tie-break to win the title, their first together in just their second tournament this season after forming in Dubai earlier this month. En route, they won their first three rounds in straight sets.

“It feels great. My emotions are overwhelming right now as we have a busy schedule and are immediately going to Miami now,” Kichenok said after the elaborate trophy ceremony. “It’s great that we finished that match and the whole tournament on a positive note. We were struggling on the super tie-break in Dubai but this one we played much better.”

Kichenok was asked whether she and Olaru made any tactical adjustments after losing the first set to the American duo (Christian is ranked 61st and Santamaria 70th). “We were trying to move a bit more [at the net] and change positions. We were rushing in that first set as they were breaking the rhythm a lot. We knew we needed to be more positive in our movement to stop Kaitlyn and Sabrina being so aggressive and giving them less time to play their game.”

When Kichenok was asked how she and Olaru felt after falling behind 6-3 in the super tie-break, she replied: “Was it 6-3? I don’t know, I just know I felt frustration. I didn’t feel nerves; I was frustrated [for] the whole match with how I played and we were just trying to hang in, play every ball – that’s what you do in these super tie-breaks. It doesn’t matter what the score is, you just try to win the last point and keep trying to do what you were doing. We were just hanging in there and it paid off.”

Will Kichenok keep playing with Olaru? She said: “Now we are taking the plane together to Miami where we will play, then we will have a break because of the Billie Jean King Cup and the clay court season preparation. Yes, we will try to play the clay court tournaments together and I hope we can do some damage.”