MIAMI, Fla. – To pick apart the weaknesses in French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko’s game, you need a few specific skills.
You have to be consistent, and willing to change up the pace and spin to throw off her rhythm.
You have to be fast, to run down enough laser shots to lure her into going for a little too much. And you have to be aggressive on serve return, to make the 20-year-old Latvian pay for those 66 mile-an-hour serves that beg to be punished.
Most of all, you have to be able to shake off the large numbers of winners that she will hit, win or lose, hot or not.
American Sloane Stephens, herself a Grand Slam champion at the US Open last summer, did all of those things.
She hit just six winners, and made a lot of errors. But she exposed the holes in Ostapenko’s game with her legs and her patience, winning the Miami Open final 7-6 (5), 6-1 Saturday.
“I knew that I was just going to have to run a lot of balls down. The way that she plays is she has a very aggressive style, and sometimes you can’t outhit her or outrun her. You just kind of have to accept that she’s going to hit some really great shots. I think that’s what I did best today,” Stephens said.
“When she was hitting great shots, I just was, like, Too good, and moved on. I think that’s what helped me kind of get through that breaker. I just accepted that some good shots were going to be hit and just didn’t harp on it too much.”
It is the second-biggest title of Stephens’s career after the momentum win in New York. Both have come on American soil. In fact, four of Stephens’s six titles have come in the U.S. She won in Charleston in 2016 and in Washington, D.C. in 2015.
Notably, Stephens has made six finals in her career – and won the title every time.
Too many errors, not enough winners
Ostapenko hit 25 winners. But she made 48 unforced errors – 29 in the first set alone, more than enough to give Stephens the set just on her errors alone.
She’s always going to make errors. But if the winners number approaches the errors number, Ostapenko is in her comfort zone. On this day, she was not.
“I’m playing the worst tennis ever,” Ostapenko moaned to coach David Taylor when he came out for an on-court consult with his charge already down a set and 4-1. Actually, she was not. Stephens simply had the tools to disarm her.
The Latvian was very gracious at the net afterwards, and in her trophy presentation speech. For her, the months after the French Open title have featured some bumps in the road.
But at this Miami Open, Ostapenko defeated No. 4 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 9 Petra Kvitova in straight sets. And she won all five tiebreaks she played. She also withstood a hearty challenge from American qualifier Danielle Collins in the semifinals.
The inexperienced Collins was somewhat of a gift draw at that stage of the tournament. But she had momentum on her side, and even had a set point against Ostapenko in the first set.
“Comparing to the other matches I watched her play this week, she was moving really well. She was changing the pace. She was serving sometimes kick, sometimes going for it. I think she’s a great player,” Ostapenko said.
“Sometimes I was going aggressive when I didn’t have to. In the first set it was working pretty well. Then some moments I think I was – I stepped a little bit back. I had to step forward, like, in the court to play the balls in the court so take away time from her, which I didn’t, so probably that’s why I lost the match.”
Finally in the top 10
Stephens, who needed some time after that US Open win six months ago to rest, process, get healthy and reload, certainly wasn’t ready in Australia two months ago. But she hould find this title gives her wings going into the meaty part of the schedule.
“I made sure after Australia I got in the best shape possible. I really just focused on myself and made sure that I was the best version of me,” she sad. ‘Whatever people said, whatever, it is what it is, but now I’m here and I have this beautiful trophy, and no one will ever be able to take that away from me, so I’m just going to walk with my head high and, you know, embrace it.”
Stephens will need wings, given her predilection for home soil. But at the same time, she has everything to gain. The 25-year-old didn’t even start playing until Wimbledon last year, after foot surgery. She has just 11 computer ranking points to defend until the Rogers Cup in Montreal, in August.
There’s a fair gap between No. 10 and the top players; for example, she’s more than 1,000 points behind No. 8 Venus Williams. But there is a move to be made, and Stephens’s game can translate well to clay.
She has played the French Open five times, and four times she reached the round of 16. Each time, she lost to a player who was no worse than the No. 6 seed. And all four of those players were either former French Open champions or finalists.
Next up, the Volvo Car Open
Ostapenko hasn’t entered any events until Stuttgart, the last week of April.
But Stephens will immediately head to Charleston, where she won the tournament (and the Volvo) the last time she played it in 2016.
As the No. 4 seed, Stephens will have a first-round bye, and a few days to regroup. She’ll meet the winner of a match between Bernarda Pera and Jana Cepelova in the second round.
Now, of course, the US Open champion will arrive in Mercedes, as the brand’s new ambassador.
Part of @SloaneStephens new deal w @MBUSA = a white Mercedes-Benz GLS63 @MiamiOpen until her official vehicle — a GLE 63 Coupe — arrives at home in California #tennis #marketing Joins @RogerFederer @LewisHamilton @RickieFowler as brand ambassadors pic.twitter.com/gK44NmnCHO
— Barry Janoff (@barryjanoff) March 22, 2018
(Screenshots from WTATV)