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Stephens and Kerber Lift Their Games at WTA Finals

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Though it remains a surprise that Elina Svitolina is one of the two unbeaten players through four days of play at the 2018 WTA Finals, it is not a surprise that in the second round-robin matches on Tuesday and Wednesday in Singapore, the counterpunchers and more reactive players outflanked the big hitters. What started in the White Group on Tuesday — with Svitolina and Caroline Wozniacki defeating Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova — continued on Wednesday. Angelique Kerber bested Naomi Osaka in a clash between the last two major champions of 2018, and then Sloane Stephens joined Svitolina as the other unbeaten player in the tournament by stopping Kiki Bertens.

Neither Svitolina nor Stephens have locked down semifinal spots — and neither Kvitova nor Osaka, the two winless players through two matches, have been eliminated — but every match means a pile of money and a gob of points. A semifinal appearance offers the chance to turn the WTA Finals into a massively productive week. Only Stephens and Svitolina have maximum leverage. Everyone else will need more help to crack the last four.

Why is Stephens in this favorable position? For the second time in as many matches this week, she stood tall at the end of a tough and close first set, which bought her the ability to play an imperfect second set and not pay a supreme price. Stephens has regathered herself in each of the round-robin matches she has played in Singapore, showing once again that after turning in a few subpar performances on tour, she can sharpen her strokes and her competitive edge when the lights are bright.

Even before she broke through at the 2017 U.S. Open, Stephens showed the ability to fine-tune her game at the bigger tournaments on the calendar. The difference now is that her ceiling is not the fourth round; it is championship-caliber. Handling Osaka in Match 1 and Bertens in Match 2 enables Sloane to say that she has cooled off the two hot players in the Red Group.

This is who Stephens is as a tennis player…  and to make sure she doesn’t get singled out, this is a representative portrait of most WTA stars. These are not every-week giants, but when most of the WTA’s best players have that week or month or tour swing in which they put all the pieces together, they aren’t making quarterfinals. They are making finals or winning titles. If you want to criticize WTA players for being volatile — which is understandable in a narrow context — do realize that increased volatility also involves a greater extreme at the high end of one’s results, not just the lower end. Variation in results is less pronounced if the high end is not as substantial. This is why volatility, though certainly frustrating to a certain degree, is not as much of a negative (or a criticism) as one might think.

Stephens still has her bad days at the office, but when she finds her groove at a tournament, she usually retains it. That’s not the player she used to be. Her growth and evolution might not have a steady upward trajectory, but they are impossible to ignore nonetheless.

Wednesday’s win against Bertens — which was stuffed with delicious all-court points and featured highly skilled shotmaking — provided such quality tennis because the two players didn’t lose as much patience as other players have this week. Whereas Osaka and Kvitova have been very hit-or-miss in Singapore, Stephens and Bertens welcomed the chance to hit an extra ball. The slow court focused their hitting instead of becoming an irritant.

In this context, Stephens was able to show her competitive chops.

Understand this about Bertens: Not only had she taken out a long string of top-10 players dating back to Madrid; her last three wins over top-10 players — Halep and Kvitova in Cincinnati, then Kerber in Match 1 on Monday — were all three-set wins. Bertens took a punch, absorbed it, and fought back in the third set against elite competition.

This is what Stephens did to Bertens on Wednesday, and it is also what she did against Osaka on Monday.

Stephens withstood everything Bertens had to offer and — midway through the third set — was putting her court-coverage skills to use on a surface which plays into her hands. Bertens had every legitimate reason to think, early in the third set, that the match was in her grasp, but Stephens took it away from her. Sloane had the right answers to the questions Bertens asked of her.

No wonder she is 2-0 and in good shape heading into Friday’s final round-robin matches.

The woman Stephens will play on Friday is the athlete who — like Caroline Wozniacki on Tuesday against Kvitova — defused a big hitter to stay alive in the tournament.

Angelique Kerber hasn’t had an easy time holding serve this week on the slow surface in Singapore, so she knows she has to be strong on return in order to give herself a good chance of making a deep run at these WTA Finals. She delivered against Osaka, earning break leads in all three sets. Her pressure on the Osaka serve was consistent. That was a necessity, not a luxury, on Wednesday, because Osaka’s return game — especially when Kerber served for the match at *5-4 in the second set — was able to burst into its full and explosive power on a number of occasions. Sometimes Kerber was her own worst enemy, but most of the time Osaka drilled shots on or near the lines. Kerber had to accept — at various points in this match — that her opponent could play an imposing level of tennis which took the racquet out of her hand.

Kerber needed to make peace with that reality, continuously regroup, and continue to work points so that Osaka would have a hard time hitting through her on a surface which favored the Wimbledon champion over the U.S. Open champion.

That’s exactly what Kerber did.

Osaka was imprecise early in the third set when she had chances to take hold of the proceedings. Seeing that her opponent was not locked in, Kerber pushed Osaka into difficult positions and made the match more physical. In Singapore, that approach has a good chance of working; Kerber implemented the plan well enough to avoid a second straight loss after winning the first set.

The good news for Kerber is that a win over Osaka not only keeps her in contention for the semifinals, but represents what is probably her best win since Wimbledon.

The bad news: Stephens — the player Kerber will very likely need to beat on Friday in order to advance to Saturday’s semis — has accessed the right frame of mind once again.

Both players lifted their games on Wednesday. Now they will see how they match up against each other, in a contest which promises lots of extended rallies.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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