Stephens has blown hot and cold this year with title winning runs in Auckland and Acapulco interspersed with opening round losses at the Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami. The seventh seed was forced to save a match point in the quarterfinals against Daria Kasatkina to survive 6-1, 5-7, 7-5, and then benefited from the retirement of world number two and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinals. Though Stephens played extremely well from the outside, it was clear that the defending champion and top seed was bothered by some form of illness, forcing her to retire with Stephens leading 6-1, 3-0.
Vesnina has regained the form that took her to 21 in the world back in 2013, playing much better since getting married last November. Since then, the Russian’s reached the quarterfinals in Doha at the expense of Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki and accounted for Venus Williams in Miami. A qualifier in each of those events as she is here, Vesnina has dropped just the one set in reaching the fourth Premier level final of her career. After upsetting the injury-impeded second seed and world number 10 Belinda Bencic 6-1, 6-1 in the second round, the world number 85 outlasted the fifth seeded, clay court specialist Sara Errani 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 in an exhausting semifinal struggle.
The American will be hoping to maintain her perfect record in finals, which currently stands at 3-0, though she has never contested a Premier level or clay court final before. Once ranked as highly as number 11 in the world in 2013, the current world number 25 had only won one main draw match in six at Charleston before, losing in the second round last year to Mona Barthel.
Unlike her opponent, Vesnina has struggled in finals, winning only two of the eight she’s contested. Though the 29-year-old has won a Premier level title before in Eastbourne 2013, she hasn’t made any finals since. Nevertheless, the Russian has always loved the green clay in Charleston, losing in the 2011 final to Wozniacki and teaming up with Sania Mirza to win the doubles. Incidentally, Vesnina is bidding to become the first qualifier and lowest ranked woman to win the oldest women’s-only tennis tournament.
Vesnina won her only previous meeting against Stephens en route to the title in Hobart in 2013, winning 6-2, 6-2 in the semifinals.
Stephens has a wonderfully free flowing game with bags of effortless power and spin. Given that she’s a natural athlete with a potent serve, the 23-year-old appears to be very comfortable on the clay, reflected in the fact that she’s made the fourth round of the French Open for the past four years. Given her evident top-10 potential with wins over Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, it’s frustrating that Stephens still struggles to maintain concentration, causing her consistency and results to suffer.
Vesnina plays with a typically Russian style, centred on flat, early groundstrokes. She looks to play aggressively and isn’t afraid to move forwards and attack the net, something which has contributed to her winning two Grand Slam doubles titles. However, her tendency to get nervous under pressure and become emotional on court has prevented her from cracking the upper echelon of the game.
Overall, Stephens is the slight favourite for this match despite the head-to-head. Given her recent title winning experience, the American will be confident of using her greater athletic prowess to chase down the extra ball and use her heavy topspin to get the ball rearing up off the clay and out of Vesnina’s strike zone. The Russian will likely be tired having already played seven matches to get to this stage and may find herself forced into errors trying to combat Stephens’ physically demanding game.
Prediction: Sloane Stephens in straight sets