Sloane Stephens and Naomi Osaka are two of the WTA’s best athletes, but they use their athleticism in opposed ways. Osaka is the aggressor: she pounces on balls and belts them flat and hard, and sometimes for winners. Stephens is the reactor: she uses her quickness and strength to get everything back, with depth and weight. In 2017 and 2018, these skills earned each of them a surprise US Open title; but as far as how they would match up against each other at the WTA Finals on Monday, it was difficult to say. Stephens had won their only previous meeting, in Acapulco in 2016, but that was a full year before Osaka became the player we know today.
Even after two sets in Singapore, it was still difficult to say who had the upper hand, or who would have it in the end. Osaka and Stephens are both WTA Finals rookies, and they began playing like it. Each misfired frequently in the early going, and struggled to find a rhythm on a court that doesn’t play like any other that the women see during the season. The momentum, such as it was, wobbled from one side of the net to the other, until Stephens broke at 5-5 and held at 6-5 on her third set point. It seemed that neither player knew exactly how to approach the other: Should they take the initiative? Should they wait for an error? From the opponent to the court to the event, it really did look like new territory for both Osaka and Stephens.
With that scrappy first set out of the way, though, the play picked up on both ends. Both women decided that they had to play their games: i.e., Osaka stepped forward to attack, and Stephens stepped back to defend. Stephens saved four break points—one of them with a rare, brilliant stab volley—and Osaka came back to save two break points of her own to hold for 3-2. From there to the end of the second set, their opposed styles made for an entertainingly competitive run of tennis. Osaka went up 5-2, Stephens came back to 4-5, and Osaka finally won the set on a Sloane double fault.
WTA FINALS INTERVIEW: Sloane Stephens
But that was the last foot that Stephens would put wrong. The American, it seemed, decided that she couldn’t win this match playing defense alone. With a series of smoothly struck winners—an inside-in forehand, a pair of down the line backhands—Stephens went up an early break in the third. At 3-1, she essentially sealed the win with her most memorable shot of the match, a running forehand pass that darted under Osaka’s racquet.
Osaka had no answer for it, or for Stephens’ consistency down the stretch. She also, unfortunately, had no answer for chair umpire Marija Cicak, either. Serving at 1-0 in the third set, down break point, Stephens hit a second serve that was called long. Cicak overruled it, Osaka didn’t challenge, Stephens won the point to get back to deuce—and we subsequently learned that Stephens’ serve really had been out and the game should have been Osaka’s.
But that was just one point among many in this erratically compelling, two-hour and 24-minute opening match. There were 11 breaks, and 31 break points. Osaka made 46 unforced errors, and Stephens double faulted six times. With her 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 win, Stephens takes a big step forward in the Red Group. As Sloane has said in the past, she can be dangerous once she settles into a tournament. You have to survive before you can settle down, and that’s what Sloane did today.
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