CHARLESTON, S.C.—It would be tempting to discount Sloane Stephens’ 6-1, 3-0 (ret.) win over world No. 2 Angelique Kerber in the semifinals of the Volvo Car Open as unworthy evidence of her progression. Kerber was the victim of a viral illness and didn’t remotely resemble the player we saw yesterday. But she was also the victim of Stephens, who confidently put forth a near-flawless performance in windy conditions and difficult circumstances.
We’ll learn more about Stephens after tomorrow’s final, in which she’ll play fifth seed Sara Errani or qualifier Elena Vesnina. But today’s performance can only benefit the still-learning 23-year-old American.
“Sad that it had to be that way,” Stephens said in her on-court interview. “Happy to be the finals; not the way I wanted to.”
Flying high above the sidelines of the green-clay court, the flags representing the entrants’ nations were whipping with such intensity that it sounded like raindrops pelting an aging roof. At one point, Kerber actually led this match; Stephens’ first service return was a wind-affected mishit. But it was all Stephens from there.
Stephens hits with more natural power than Kerber, and her balls cut through the swirling gusts like an expensive knife. Combined with the proper amount of restraint, Stephens’ fusillade of forehands forced Kerber to hit down the line repeatedly. Though the German connected on an admirable amount of these higher-risk shots, it was a level that couldn’t be sustained.
Stephens, on the other hand, never relented or dipped at any point in this less-than-an-hour of power. She was aggressive on serve and came forward at any opportunity to put away short balls. Combined with a bit of good fortune—a framed Stephens return on break point at 2-0 landed on the crosshairs of both the baseline and sideline—and Kerber was fortunate to win even the solitary game she did.
“Indian Wells and Miami wasn’t great,” said Stephens, who lost her opening matches at both big events. “But there’s something to be said about bounce-back ability.”
It was clear that the wind was a factor after the first set, but it was also obvious that Stephens was playing extremely well. But it wasn’t until the second set that it became clear that Kerber wasn’t herself. She dropped the first two games quickly—the second with a double fault—and took an extended medical timeout. Glances at her coach became more frequent. When she was aced to close out the third game, Kerber glanced at Stephens near the tournament’s signature wicker furniture and called it a day.
Kerber walked off the court and waved to the understanding and appreciative crowd. She was also waving goodbye to the No. 2 ranking, as she’ll be supplanted in the rankings by Agnieszka Radwanska on Monday.
Stephens walked off to an extended afternoon of recovery, and with the knowledge that, if she can play this way again, she not only has a good chance to win her third title of the season, but can compete with the world’s best—regardless of their health.