Beijing: Wozniacki d. Stephens
On his first visit to see Sloane Stephens, with Caroline Wozniacki leading 4-3 in a tight, exceptionally well-played first set, coach David Nankin told the American: “Keep it up, it’s a high level, this is exactly what it will take (to beat Caroline Wozniacki).”
On his next visit, after Stephens was broken for the second time in just the third game of the second set, Nankin didn’t advise as much as plead, “Try to say with her. . .”
Indeed, by that second visit Stephens was in desperate straits despite having acquitted herself admirably in a first set that was chock-a-block with outstanding rallies and exquisite shotmaking at both ends of the court. That opening set lasted well over an hour, but once Wozniacki finally won it the floodgates opened and Stephens was soon swept away, 6-3. 6-1.
The final score suggest a blowout, but when was the last time a match with so few games lasted an hour and 45 minutes? That gives you a sense of just how entertaining and sometimes unpredictable this clash was.
Stephens had a break point in the very first game of the match, but failed to convert it. Wozniacki, the No. 6 seed, then had two break points against Stephens’ serve in the next game, but she also failed to get the breakthrough. Before we saw a break in this one, Stephens had seen four break chances on which she couldn’t capitalize, while Wozniacki let eight break points slip away. When she finally converted one to break for 4-2, the match was just four minutes short of an hour long.
Wozniacki could hardly be held responsible for those failures, because Stephens is a wonderful shotmaker. And on this day, the No. 11 seed also had both the patience and energy (neither of which is always a given) to engage Wozniacki in the cat-and-mouse game that the Dane prefers.
Wozniacki likes to inflict death-by-rally on her opponents, but that’s also her shortcoming. If a player is willing to step in and tag a ball hard enough to hit a winner or pull Wozniacki, an outstanding defender, out of her comfort zone, the doors to victory begin to open up.
Stephens did her best to make that happen, taking advantage of her opponent’s conservative game plan based on repeating the safest approach off both wings, the cross-court. Granted, Wozniacki’s strategy probably called for staying away from the explosive Stephens forehand, but there’s such a thing as going overboard. If the strategy largely worked, it was partly because, at 20 years of age, Stephens still hasn’t quite developed the patience or shot combinations to blunt it.
In spite of all that, the first part of this match was so close that had Stephens won the battle of the wills—and skills—she might have gone on to win the match by the same score.
The critical game was the sixth one, in which a ghastly smash by Stephens gave Wozniacki a 30-40 advantage. Stephens would escape that break point with a deft backhand volley winner to end a long rally. She went on to dodge another break point, but hit a double fault on a subsequent game point. After a backhand error gave Wozniacki her ninth break point of the set, Stephens presented her with a reward for her diligence—a careless forehand error that ended the game.
Stephens had a chance to regain lost ground when she broke Wozniacki right back to get back on serve at 4-3. It was at that point that Nankin provided Stephens with that first bit of advice, which she proceeded to completely ignore. Although she won the first point of the next game, she lost the next four to give up another break, and in the blink of an eye Wozniacki had run off 10 of 11 points to lead by a set and break (and also 30-love) in the second set.
A second break in the third game of the second set sealed Stephens’ fate, and Wozniacki won her sixth consecutive game shortly after. Stephens would win just one game the rest of the way, and probably take no consolation from having suffered one of the “best” 6-3, 6-1 losses in recent WTA history.