The women’s final of the Volvo Car Open was a final not many were expecting. Sloane Stephens, who has been having an on-and-off year, managed to find her way to the finals with a default from the Australian Open Champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinals. When Stephens is on, she has done very well, winning 2 of her 3 career titles this year. The biggest surprise, however, was Elena Vesnina. Vesnina was a qualifier who beat Bencic, the two seed, in the first round 1,1! Elena maintained her amazing performances throughout the week, beating Sara Errani in the semifinals, clinching her spot in her second final at this tournament. It was a big moment for her, since this is her first final since 2013! This final is important for each player: Sloane can win her 3rd title this year, and Vesnina can get into the top 50! Let’s see how this final played out, and who had the edge.
Let’s start with Vesnina, who beat Stephens the last time they played 2,2. Before the match, she said that her game plan is to be aggressive and make many first serves. In the first set, especially in the beginning, you could tell she was very nervous. She was not going for her shots, hitting every ball cross court to make sure she didn’t miss. No matter what situation you are in, you should never be tentative on your shots; you play your best when you are relaxed. Once Vesnina became relaxed and began to make her shots, she began to play much better. A lot of people have a misconception about what it means to be aggressive. If your game plan is to be aggressive, it does not necessarily mean to hit hard and flat, going for small targets. Vesnina, even though she hit many amazing shots, went down 2-5 in the first set, due to poor shot selection.Hitting hard consistently can be exhausting, especially when you play a player like Sloane Stephens, who gets everything back. Hitting hard wastes a lot of energy and you will generally give out first and miss, or hit an unnecessary drop shot from exhaustion (trust me, this used to be me). Instead, Vesnina should have had smarter shot placement, hitting deep and getting Sloane out of position, waiting for the short ball to attack. The idea is, if you are giving your opponent uncomfortable and deep shots, they are very unlikely to give you the same ball because she will be out of position. At 2-5, Vesnina’s father/coach came out and gave her a little chat, and I bet it was just what I explained earlier. All of a sudden, she became more unpredictable with her shot placement, causing Sloane not only to give Elena more short balls, but also Sloane began to miss more. When Elena was giving Sloane the same pace ball every time, Sloane did not miss, as she knew the type of ball that was coming back every time. Elena began to win so many more points, that she got Sloane all the way to a tiebreaker, but I want you to guess who won it after I give Sloane’s evaluation.
Sloane said her game plan was to keep Vesnina on the move, and not give her the same shot twice, sound familiar? Sloane was always the first to change direction, allowing herself to step inside the court and be the aggressor. Sloane’s angles are some of the best angles on tour, and she used them very effectively. She always made Vesnina hit the extra ball, and the only time she would miss is when she was out of position with her feet and tried to change direction. If you ever want to change direction, you have to be one hundred percent prepared with your feet to be the risk taker. If you are not, you are most likely going to miss, or hit a shot that is easy for the oppoonent to take advantage of. Another thing that Stephens was very smart in doing was hitting her kick serve as a first serve. The second point of the match, Sloane double faulted. If you are ever uncomfortable with your serve, hitting a kick first serve is a very effective option. Your opponent does not expect it, and they end up returning the ball too high in their strike zone. This is exactly was she did to Vesnina. Vesnina missed so many returns that kicked up high to her backhand. By hitting a kick first serve, you also don’t have to worry about double faulting. It is a win-win situation. A kick also comes at the opponent with a totally different pace, spin, and direction. It is like throwing a curve ball in baseball. Another option if you do not like your kick serve as a first serve would be a serve to the body. When you aim to the middle of the box, you are going for a big target, and it is going over the lowest part of the net. This serve jams up your opponent, most likely leading to a short ball for you to put away. Another win-win situation that Sloane used very well.
Sloane followed her game plan very well, outlasting Vesnina in the long rallies to bring her to a lead of 5-2. However, while Sloane was getting overly confident in her play, Vesnina was beginning to step it up with a new strategy. This caught Sloane by surprise, causing her to lose the next 4 games. Down 5-6 and two set points, Sloane was able to stay calm and collected, going for big targets, to bring the set to a deciding tiebreaker. The tiebreaker was all Sloane Stephens. Sloane hit incredible shots in the tiebreaker, not giving Vesnina a chance to be dominant because Sloane was hitting aggressive balls with big targets. Vesnina did not play badly, but Sloane was the one to step it up when she most needed to. One thing people have to remember is that no matter what point in the set you are in, you always have to be relaxed and play your game, and be confident in your abilities to win.
In the second set, sadly, Vesnina’s fatigue began to kick in. Right at the start of the second set, she was missing way too many returns. Your goal on returns should not be to hit winners. The goal is to go for a very big target, but still making sure that it is not a weak ball. A misconception people have is that if their target is big, then the ball is not effective. But in reality, if you go for a big target, making sure you hit deep and out of the center of the court, your ball will still be very effective. Instead of making a few amazing returns, you will instead make 99% of effective returns. Unfortunately, Vesnina went for too small of targets on the return and gave Sloane too many free points. Also, once again, she let Sloane dictate the play. She was not given any chances to win longer points because she did not hit effectively, as I have discussed before, to make Sloane miss or hit short. Another mistake that she continued to make was missing backhands up high. When you have a high ball, and you choose to take a backhand and take it early, the goal is not to go from high to low. When you go from high to low, the direction that you are leading the ball to is down to the net. That is exactly what was happening to Vesnina. She missed way too many backhand shots in the net. Instead, once you have your hands up at the ball, continue to go through the ball, and send the tip of your racket all the way to the level of your shoulder. By doing this, you ensure that the ball won’t go into the net and it will instead go deep to the baseline. When Vesnina did move Sloane she tended to give herself an advantage in the points, but the only problem was that she was usually moved first.
On Sloane’s side of the court, she was having a very solid second set, starting the set off with a break of serve. She came off with a big lead in the second set, going for big targets and having nearly no unforced errors. Because Vesnina was getting less confident, and Sloane was getting more confident, Sloane began to play more solidly. She was overpowering Vesnina by really penetrating her shots deep or outsmarting Vesnina by hitting a nice angle to vary the depth and pace. She continued to effectively use her kick serve as a first serve.
As you can tell by my analysis, Sloane Stephens won the match 7-6(4) 6-2. Her play overall was much smarter and more solid, causing Vesnina to struggle keeping up. I hope this analysis of the players and the advice that I have given you will help in your game. You will see the difference immediately. Remember, the smartest player always wins!