Stephens And Keys: ‘It’s Always A Good Battle’

Sloane Stephens (photo: Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

When Americans Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys play each other, regardless of the surface or the round of the tournament, they always seem to play well. “It’s always a good battle,” Stephens said recently.

On Wednesday evening, in the second round of the WTA 500 Volvo Car Open at LTP-Daniel Island Tennis Center, the two former Charleston winners – Stephens in 2016 and Keys in 2019 – squared off. Both have been struggling this season for wins and over the course of their nearly-90-minute tussle, it would come down to who could play most focused and confident – and be most relaxed.

As it happened, it was Stephens, who beat Keys for the fourth time in five career meetings, 6-4, 6-4, ensuring there would be a new Volvo Car Open champion this year. The Plantation, Fla. native put up some good numbers in winning for just the third time in eight matches this season. She won points on 83 percent of her first serves, saved all three break points she faced, broke Keys twice and outpointed her close friend 76-62. The loss, the third straight for Keys, dropped her win-loss record for the season to 2-4.

“We’ve played a lot, so I kind of feel like this is normal for us,” Stephens said before the match. “You separate your friendship from your professional life and the match, and you go back to being friends after.”

As Stephens and Keys met at the net to tap racquets, Stephens managed to make Keys smile. All seemed good as they walked off the court together. It’s not the first time that Stephens has consoled Keys after a match. One need only think back to the conclusion of the 2017 US Open final, won by Stephens, in which Keys was brought to tears by the loss.

“One person is celebrating the best moment of their life, and the other one, in front of millions of people on TV, is having a moment,” Stephens said following her first-round win on Tuesday. “If it was the other way around, it would have been the exact same thing. You do what you do for friends.”

Just how big of a victory was it for Stephens? Consider this: the 28-year-old, whose ranking has dipped to No. 57 after peaking at World No. 3 in July of 2018, had not won consecutive matches in a tournament since last year’s US Open. With her victory over Keys, Stephens is now 3-5 and into the round of 16 against Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, who advanced with a 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 win over Marie Bouzkova of Czech Republic, in a match that lasted nearly three hours Wednesday afternoon.

During her virtual press conference after walking off Althea Gibson Club Court a winner, Tennis TourTalk asked Stephens what she was most proud of from her triumph over Keys. Without hesitation, she said: “I think that I executed my game well. I served well, better than I have been. I executed and stayed with the game plan. I went there thinking ‘this is what I need to do.’ I stuck with it and I’m pleased with that.”

Rogers beats Anisimova in heated all-American battle

Later, in the second half of an All-American twin bill Wednesday evening, unseeded No. 52 Shelby Rogers upset No. 13 seed Amanda Anisimova, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4, in a match in which the Charleston favorite didn’t let any of the drama that was happening on the court with her opponent bother her. By the end of the two hour and three-minute match on Althea Gibson Club Court, Tennis Channel commentator Ted Robinson was moved to call the outcome of the match, “a shining example of composure amid chaos,” in complimenting how Rogers comported herself on the green clay.

During her virtual press conference afterward, Rogers agreed with Robinson’s assessment, saying it was “definitely chaos. Not pretty, but they don’t ask how [you won]. I’m just happy to move on to the next round.”

Rogers told Tennis TourTalk: “I gave myself a chance to do some things better. I’m proud of myself for turning things around. It could have been a brutal walk back to the clubhouse at 6-1, 4-1.

“I did what I thought I could with what I had. [Amanda] played amazing at times. Again, I live to see another round and I’ll try to do a little better.”

While Rogers won the first seven points of the match, the 33rd-ranked Anisimova reeled off 26 of the next 35 points to close out the 24-minute opening set 6-1, which included three breaks of Rogers’ serve.

Then, after Rogers finally held serve at the start of the second set, she dug herself into a hole after Anisimova broke her serve in the next two service games to go ahead 4-1. Following a lengthy medical time out called by Anisimova, in which she left the court for treatment and returned with her right thigh heavily bandaged, Rogers broke the Miami teenager’s serve and consolidated the break to remain alive, just a break of serve down at 3-4 and Anisimova hobbling about the court trying to close out the match.

After an exchange of service holds, Anisimova found herself serving for the match at 5-4. However, Rogers wasn’t done fighting. She broke Anisimova on her fourth break-point chance of the game to pull even at 5-all. Then, Rogers held serve to go ahead 6-5 after having won five of the last six games. Needing to hold serve to gain a tie break, Anisimova was stymied by Rogers, who broke her at 15 to win the 58-minute set 7-5, which forced a decider.

The third set began inauspiciously with five straight breaks of serve that gave Anisimova a 3-2 lead. Next, Rogers stormed back and won three straight games to go ahead 5-3, leaving Anisimova in tears. Serving for the match, though, Rogers was unable to close it out. Instead, she was broken by Anisimova for the ninth time. However, all turned out well for her in the end. That’s because Rogers endured an 11-shot rally that ended with Anisimova hitting a forehand wide on the first match point for the South Carolina native.

Indeed, the chaotic match – which featured a medical time out and later an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty levied against Anisimova for boorish behavior – finished in an emotional upheaval. Not your usual second-round match on the WTA tour, right? In the end, it was the composed Rogers who left the court smiling. She gets to play World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the third round Thursday night.

Barty wins first clay match since 2019 Roland Garros

World No. 1 and top seed Ashleigh Barty was successful in her first match on clay since winning the 2019 Roland Garros title, her only Grand Slam crown. The affable Aussie beat No. 77 Misaki Doi of Japan, 6-2, 6-1, needing just 62 minutes to advance to Thursday’s third round against Shelby Rogers, who rallied to defeat No. 13 seed Amanda Anisimova, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Barty looked comfortable in hitting seven aces and 23 winners and converted five of seven break-point opportunities against Doi, who was held to just six winners while committing 19 unforced errors. She broke Barty just once in three tries. Barty outpointed Doi 60-33 en route to her 15th victory of the 2021 season.

“I think you have to view it as an opportunity to try and build some comfort,” Barty said during her virtual press conference shortly after her win.“Coming here from Miami to play my first match, it was important to let my body rest and to also try and prepare to change surfaces. It was a quick turnaround. I felt great out there tonight. I thought the conditions here are very quick. It’s not your traditional European red clay but it’s a nice feel. I’m glad I was able to get through [the match].”

Tennis TourTalk asked Barty about the long gap in between clay matches for her and whether it seemed odd not having played an official contest on clay since winning Roland Garros in 2019. She said: “Yes, in a way I think last year was very challenging for a lot of people around the world. I still during the middle part of the year (2020) tried to keep some consistency with the way schedule usually flows. The only surface I didn’t hit on last year was grass, which broke my heart a little bit. I still hit on clay in the middle of the year, during the Australian winter and played some practice sets. Obviously, it was in a period where we were unsure of what my schedule would look like. It was a nice start here tonight in Charleston, beautiful court, beautiful conditions. I’m glad I get another chance to play here as well.”

Wednesday’s Volvo Car Open results

Thursday’s Volvo Car Open order of play

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Sloane Stephens on putting into perspective her two-match winning streak, the first time since last year’s US Open she’s won consecutive matches in the same tournament: “I think it all has to be put into perspective, what everyone’s going through – what I’m going through. I once heard on Tennis Channel that I hadn’t won a match in 175 days or something like that. I think that a lot is happening.

‘Tennis is up and down. The statistics and things that people say are always true, but it’s like in tennis you can’t really think like that. You go out and win the tournament and it’s like it never really happened. It doesn’t really matter. So, you just focus on the here and now and not really pay attention. Yes, it’s good that I’ve won back-to-back matches. I want to keep it going and win some more.”

Plenty of upsets at Copa Colsanitas

Wednesday’s second round play at the WTA 250 Copa Colsanitas in Bogotá, Colombia, saw four seeded players – including No. 1 Zheng Saisai – go down to defeat on the red clay at Country Club de Bogotá.

Zheng, ranked 49th, lost to No. 127 Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland, 6-4, 6-1. Also, No. 3 seed Arantxa Rus of the Netherlands, ranked 83rd, was ousted by 171st-ranked Spanish qualifier Nuria Parrizas Diaz, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-1; No. 8 seed Wang Yafan fell to No. 146 Viktoriya Tomova of Bulgaria, 6-3, 6-3; and No. 6 seed Jasmine Paolini of Italy, ranked 103rd, was defeated by 167th-ranked qualifier Lara Arruabarrena of Spain, 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. Also reaching the quarterfinal round was No. 112 Sara Errani of Italy, who defeated No. 108 Aliona Bolsova of Spain, 6-4, 6-4.

Wednesday’s Copa Colsanitas results

The highest remaining seed in the tournament is No. 5 seed Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia. She faces Italian qualifier Giulia Gatto-Monticone in Thursday’s action.

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