PARIS—Sloane Stephens’ 70-minute, 6-3, 6-1 win over Daria Kasatkina on Wednesday was a briefly fascinating duel and a quietly masterful performance, both of which were wrapped in the scores of a routinely one-sided result.
The match, despite its brevity, went through three stages. For the first three games, the American and the Russian engaged in a traditional feeling-out process, like two boxers dancing through the opening two rounds before daring to throw a punch. But in the fourth game, Kasatkina left her guard down with a couple of unforced errors. Stephens, as is her specialty, landed a quick jab—in this case, it was a devastating forehand—to break serve.
From there, the match entered its briefly-fascinating-duel phase. For the next five games, Stephens and Kasatkina showed each other everything—every feint, hook, parry, cross, and uppercut—that they had in their repertoires.
Stephens held for 4-1 with two powerful service winners. Kasatkina answered in the next game with a forehand winner and a backhand winner to hold. At 2-4, the Russian dipped into her bag of tricks for the first time with a deftly disguised drop-lob combination, and broke serve by out-steadying Stephens in a long baseline rally. When Kasatkina went up 40-0 at 3-4, it looked as if she was fully engaged and in her element. She ranged far behind the baseline to defend, before turning the rallies around with aggressive forehands into the corners. Now, it seemed, we had the easy-power versus easy-finesse that we had hoped to see from this match.
WATCH: Match point from Stephens' win over Kasatkina:
But then something odd and ultimately decisive happened: Before Kasatkina could finish throwing her counterpunch, Stephens landed another punch of her own. From 40-0 down, she began looking for more forehands, and hitting them more assertively when she got them. She didn’t go for outright winners; instead, she hit with pace and depth down the middle of the court, and didn’t miss. The combination kept Kasatkina from using any of her creative variations, any drops or angles, while also giving the Russian no openings for her ground strokes. Kasatkina kept pounding, but it was Stephens who kept finding the open court and ending the points with winners—the American had such an obvious advantage in power and speed that she never seemed to need to extend herself. Finally, a tired Kasatkina missed a forehand at break point. She would win just one more game.
“I thought I played pretty solid,” said Stephens, not sounding nearly as impressed with her day as I was. “I knew I had to come out and keep swinging. Sometimes, I start well and sometimes a little sluggish. I knew I needed to keep swinging no matter what, even if it was very close, so that’s what I did. And when I got my opportunity at 4-3 to break, I was like, ‘It’s go time.’”
From there, the match entered its third and final phase, in which Sloane essentially shut down all of Kasatkina’s options. She controlled the rallies with high and heavy—but never risky—shots that got above Kasatkina’s shoulders. And when Kasatkina tried to up the pace from her side, Stephens just took a simple step back and absorbed it. Kasatkina hit her share of drop shot and lob winners, but she couldn’t stand toe to toe with Sloane, or win nearly as many free points on her serve—Stephens’s average serve speed was nearly 20 miles per hour faster than Kasatkina’s.
“I couldn’t make a winner,” a frustrated Kasatkina said. “Anything I was spinning, it was just [in] a good spot for her. And she was moving unbelievable.”
Chalk it up as another one of Stephens’ quiet, fluid, understated masterworks. With her 6-2, 6-0 win over Anett Kontaveit, Stephens has now knocked out two of the WTAs rising young players with the loss of a total of six games. When you watch Sloane in this casually unbeatable mode, and hear her describe her level as merely “pretty solid,” you wonder again how many majors she can win, and just how many players stand a chance of beating her. We’ll find out very soon.
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