23-year-old American Sloane Stephens continues racking up titles in 2016, tying Victoria Azarenka for the most this year, with three, after emerging victorious in Charleston. Stephens, having never reached a tournament final since last summer despite her general success, now finds herself with four WTA singles titles, one of them now a Premier on clay, not her favorite surface, as well. After saving a match point during her quarterfinal encounter with Daria Kasatkina, she went on to upset world number two and defending champion Angelique Kerber, who retired midway through the second set and yesterday to beat a resurgent Elena Vesnina to capture the title. It was a thoroughly entertaining final with the Russian, who came completely out of the blue as a qualifier to reach the final, giving a great fight for at least the first set.
Stephens survives a set point and a powerful comeback to win a tight first set
The match started with two breaks indicating the nerves of the two finalists. Though, quickly enough, both found their rhythm and with some great shots, indicative of their immense talents, they held in the next games for 2-2. The fifth game was dramatic. Vesnina was returning splendidly well with depth, whilst the American was fighting on her own answers, either with powerful groundstrokes or serves. The Russian qualifier had two break points, but both were saved by Stephens, one with an amazing running forehand. The 23-year-old had managed to read correctly her counterpart's return plan and with a good serve she would close the game for 3-2.
Now Vesnina, with the pressure on her shoulders after a tough game for her, led 40-0 on her serve only to see this lead getting shattered by an amazing display of athleticism by Stephens who won five points in a row to break for 4-2. In the next game, despite serving another double fault, she held easily to extend her lead to 5-2. At the start of the match, Vesnina was more aggressive and was putting Stephens in trouble striking freely and cleverly, but after that marathon fifth game, the American had read her tactics and was completely on fire.
Although she had the momentum, Stephens crumbled down, proving to be too nervous to close it out on her own serve after a hold by Vesnina, who jumped at the chance and broke. Significantly, Stephens gave her a break point with a double fault, one of the already many she had delivered so far. Vesnina went on to hold and brought new interest in the set with her backhands, finding superb angles. At 5-5 now, the Russian played an immense return game, one of the most entertaining ones in the match with an incredible rally ended on a classy volley by Vesnina. The Russian qualifier had found again her game plan and was able to move her opponent on the green clay and drag the errors away from her. Vesnina would now have to serve for the first set. This was a wake up call for Stephens, who, after feeling the pressure, went 40-0 up with three break points. Vesnina gave her own fight to turn it around and earn a set point, but the American's efforts were rewarded as she managed to break in her fourth break point to force the tiebreak.
In the breaker, Stephens took two times the crucial mini-break but the one was saved. However, she took the second and with some fearless backhands down the line she closed the tiebreak at 7-4. It was a high quality set between the two. Vesnina was the aggressive one and the one with the biggest acceleration in general, however some errors and momentum shifts by the 29-year-old cost her the set. Stephens by her side worked perfectly well under pressure, and found some ridiculous backhands sown the line to close it.
Stephens seizes the second set and the title
Stephens entered the second set full of confidence after getting through the physically and mentally tough first part of the match. On the other side of the net, Vesnina's psychology and body language showed she was still affected from the loss of the first set, especially since she was one point away from having it. Like this, Stephens led quickly 2-0 with a break, playing really well with the help of some errors by her opponent as well. An exchange of holds would follow before another marathon fifth game. Stephens gave an immense fight to grab the second break and eventually lead 4-1. At this point, the American was playing sublime tennis, exploiting her counterpart's shots, who seemed tired and lost on court. After another couple of holds the American was about to serve for the title. She quickly earned for herself three match points which were immediately saved by the Russian. However, she held her nerve to close it out in the next two points.
Sloane Stephens was the champion of the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, the only green clay court tournament and the oldest only-women tournament in the calendar. It is her fourth and biggest career title so far and she remains unbeaten in finals since reaching her first last summer. Now she has three titles this year and along with Victoria Azarenka they are the title leaders for this season. For Vesnina, it was quite a tournament, as she began from qualifying and went on to reach the final for the second time after 2011, beating the likes of Belinda Bencic and Sara Errani on her way to the championship match.
All about the numbers
It was, in general lines, a close match. Vesnina was the one with the more errors in the end as it was proven and in the rallies she was less patient. Stephens barely ended the match with a positive winner and unforced error ratio due to her great second set. Despite serving many double faults, the American was solid behind her serve and on the net. Vesnina had a great first serve percentage as well and was good saving break points. In conclusion, it was a really fun match.
Next week, Vesnina will be supporting the Russian team in Belarus. Her unexpected result moved her on the edge of entering the top 50, at 51, in this weeks provisional rankings. Stephens moved from 25 to 21 and considering her upcoming schedule, she will not be with the United States team for the tie against Australia in Brisbane.