Stephens wins third tournament of 2016 in Charleston

by: AP | April 10, 2016

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The American beat Vesnina, 7-6 (4), 6-2 on green clay. (AP)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) Sloane Stephens invited a friend to come watch her play at the Volvo Car Open.

''And I was like, `Well, I've never won a match there, so the earlier in the week you could come, the better,''' Stephens said, laughing.

Turns out, the rising 23-year-old American had a nice long stay, winning her third WTA title of the season with a 7-6 (4), 6-2 victory over Elena Vesnina in the finals Sunday.

Stephens had actually won one match in her previous five main-draw appearances on Charleston's green clay. In this visit, the seventh-seeded Stephens from Planation, Florida, dropped only one set on the way to her first clay-court crown.

Stephens said she changed her fortunes here when she changed her attitude, going from anxious about past losses to carefree about her chances.

''Just go out and play and have fun because, I mean, it's just another week,'' Stephens said she told herself. ''Like I don't have anything to lose. My life is great. It's tennis and this is what I do every week. So I kind of just changed my mindset and that worked.

''I should do just do that every week,'' she joked.

Stephens almost has done that in 2016, previously winning events in Auckland and Acapulco. The victory in Charleston gives her four career titles.

Not that Vesnina made it easy, rallying from 5-2 down in the opening set and holding a set point before Stephens forced the tiebreaker.

Vesnina put away a shot at the net to make it 3-3 in the tiebreaker before Stephens won four of the next five points to move in front.

Stephens did not let herself get down during Vesnina's comeback.

''I knew I was going to get my opportunity, some way, if I just battled every point,'' she said. ''And I think it worked.''

Stephens made sure not to give Vesnina, the 29-year-old Russian, any openings in the second set. She was up 5-1, and even after blowing a 40-0 lead in the final game, Stephens' strong groundstokes pushed Vesnina deep into corners with shots she could not return.

''At one point, I was thinking, `She's everywhere,''' Vesnina said of Stephens' play.

Vesnina hit a service return wide on the final point as the big crowd at stadium court cheered. Stephens was the first American to win the title since Serena Williams took consecutive trophies in 2012-13 when this was the Family Circle Cup.

Vesnina, who lost to Caroline Wozniacki in the 2011 final, was the first weekend qualifier to reach the tournament's championship match. The fatigue of 718 minutes - nearly 12 hours - of tournament tennis looked as though it finally set in during the final set.

For Vesnina, the long ride in Charleston was well worth being a little tired.

''All the way from the qualies. I can't believe I'm standing here in the finals,'' she told the crowd. ''I love Charleston.''

Stephens has a couple of more reasons to love Charleston, too.

Along with the $128,100 for winning, Stephens was stunned when she received a power-blue Volvo V60 Polestar from the tournament.

''Did you know I was getting a car?'' she excitedly asked. ''Neither did I.''

When asked what she'd do with it, she answered simply, ''Drive it.''

Maybe all the way to the French Open?

Stephens was pleased with her clay performance and will tackle tournaments in Madrid and Rome before heading to Paris. She has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros the past four years and is hopeful her Charleston win is a springboard to even more.

''I mean, I couldn't ask for a better start,'' she said. ''So I'm excited to get over there and start playing.''

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