Rome: Stephens d. Pennetta

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As Tuesday dawned in Rome, there were quite a few women who fell into the “could really use a win” category. Unfortunately, two of them were facing two others. Early in the day, Bojana Jovanovski, who hadn’t won a match since the Australian Open, came back to beat Caroline Wozniacki, who lost her third straight first-rounder of the European clay season. A couple of hours later, Flavia Pennetta, a 31-year-old wild card whose ranking has fallen to No. 104, took on Sloane Stephens, the 20-year-old American who has gone 2-7 since reaching the semifinals in Melbourne in February. Somebody had to come out a winner, right?

It was obvious from the start who it should be. Stephens was the stronger, faster, more easily aggressive player the whole way. She says that clay is her favorite surface, and she moves well on it for a hard-court-raised American. On faster surfaces, her sometimes-passive footwork can lead to late swings at the ball, but on dirt today she was able to get around her forehand in plenty of time to knock it off and take over rallies. Stephens finished with a healthy 23 winners against 26 errors—not a bad ratio on clay—and fired her inside-in forehand especially well.

Pennetta, who is still finding her way back after undergoing wrist surgery last year, didn’t have any answers. She was a step behind in rallies, forced to go for desperate winners while on the run, and well behind the baseline. Still, with the Italian crowd behind her, she hung in as long as she could. Pennetta saved a match point at 1-5 down in the second set, broke Stephens in the next game, and did enough to make Sloane, who has lost from this position before, get a little tight. But It wasn’t enough, and Stephens finished with a 6-3, 6-3 victory.

That score may sound routine, but there are no routine wins for Sloane these days. Despite being the superior player, she showed flashes of why she’s struggled of late. In each set, Stephens let a lead slip and gave Pennetta hope. With a chance to break for 5-0 in the second, she missed an easy forehand. With a match point two games later, she tried to do too much with an easy backhand, missed it, and ended up keeping Pennetta in the set for two more games. 

In this case, though, a W really is a W, however it went down. Stephens will play Kiki Bertens next. If she gets another W there, she’ll likely be back on a big stage for the first time since Australia, in a third-rounder with Maria Sharapova.

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