Daniel Island, S.C., April 9, 2016 — One woman has successfully defended her title at the Volvo Car Open over the last ten years: Serena Williams. Since she’s not here, Angelique Kerber was called on to equal the feat. But she couldn’t do it.
Instead of making history Kerber retired with a viral infection in the first semifinal of the day. The German, and number-one seed, was down a miserable 6-1 3-0 when she called it a day.
The second semifinal was less dramatic. Sara Errani (No. 5) and Elena Vesnina (qualifier) battled for three sets in an up-and-down affair that had fans on their feet at times. Vesnina came out on the top, defeating the Italian 6-4 4-6 6-2.
Before Kerber stepped on stadium court she knew something was amiss.
“I felt like something is wrong, when I was warming up this morning,” Kerber said. “Then, it starts in the first few games in the first set, something was not good.”
Kerber struggled to complete everyday rally shots. She didn’t leap into her serve. Her footwork was sluggish and she didn’t slide well, seeming uninterested in exerting effort.
“For sure I wasn’t one-hundred percent,” she added. “Of course I will be looking forward to coming back next year because it’s one of the best tournaments of the year. And, I hope that the final will be really great for the people and for the fans.”
Sloane Stephens (No. 7), though, happily accepted the win even though she was sympathetic.
“Unfortunately she wasn’t feeling well,” Stephens began. “I wish her well. I hope she gets better soon because I know they have Fed Cup coming up in a week.”
The Charleston final will be Stephens first on clay and the most prestigious tournament for which she has contended. If she wins she’ll tie Victoria Azarenka for the most titles won in the year: three.
“It’s nice to be in another final this year and it’s nice to be playing well on clay,” Stephens remarked.
Stephens record in Charleston is not the best. In her five previous appearances she lost in her opening matches.
“I think it’s just a different mindset,” she said. “I just came in thinking I have nothing to lose; and, I’ve always played like garbage here. This year I decided I was going to come out and do the best I possibly could. I love Charleston. Why wouldn’t I want to be here until Sunday.”
In January, Stephens parted ways with Coach Nick Saviano for the second time in her career. Although she’d won her first career title in Washington D. C. alongside Nick, her ranking had slipped to No. 30. She now works with Kamau Murray of Chicago and founder of the XS Tennis & Education Foundation.
“I’ve know him for awhile,” she began. “We work well together and have good chemistry on court.”
In January Chicago Magazine ran a piece on his tennis coaching with kids from the south-side of Chicago. In it he says, “I tell parents that if they follow my plan, I can guarantee their kids a free college education.” Question is, has he promised Stephens anything like that?
“No,” she said, laughing. “I need to ask him why I haven’t gotten a guarantee.”
Elena Vesnina will make history Sunday, win or lose. It will be the first time in tournament history — 44 years — that a qualifier has made the final.
“I think I’ve never been in the finals coming from the qualifying,” she began. “How many matches have I won … seven? So seven matches in a row. That’s quite impressive. A big run for me.”
Vesnina is no newcomer to Charleston, though, and certainly not an upstart on tour. This is her 10th appearance here, having reached the quarterfinal in 2009. She was the runner-up in 2011, when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki. Additionally, Vesnina won the doubles title in 2011 alongside Sania Mirza. In Doha earlier this year, Vesnina and Daria Kasatkina ended the 41-match winning streak of Sania Mirza and Martina Hingis. Finally, Vesnina has two Grand Slam doubles titles: 2014 U. S. Open and 2013 French Open. She played with Ekaterina Makarova.
Beating Sara Errani on her preferred surface wasn’t an easy day at the office for Vesnina.
“Sara’s a clay-court specialist,” she said. “She had most of her wins on this surface and she really knows how to play. She really understands the strategy on this surface.”
Vesnina and Stephens are 1-0, head-to-head. That match was a long time ago and far away — 2013, Hobart, Australia.
“Sloane is a very talented girl,” Vesnina said, thoughtfully. “She’s casual on court, very calm and moves amazingly. We played in Hobart. I remember what she likes, what she doesn’t like. It’s going to be very important tomorrow to stay focused because she uses pace really well and her forehand is one of the strongest on the tour. So, I probably need to stay away from that shot and keep moving her around.”
Let’s hope the wind calms down for Sunday’s match. It acted like an unwanted interloper today.
“It was changing direction every five minutes,” she said. “I lost a couple games because I though that I’m playing with the wind ahead of me, and it was like blowing not that way. I needed a couple points just to understand that I’m playing the wrong strategy with the wind. It was tricky.”
Wind or no wind, both women carry the weight of tomorrow’s final. It’s Charleston, after all. The feel-good stop on the spring swing, and the first final of the clay-court season. Points won here will help of detract from rankings. And with Roland Garros on the way, every point counts.