DANIEL ISLAND — Sloane Stephens wasn’t expecting much out of her trip to Charleston last week.
A few days of tennis, maybe some good food and then hop a plane back home to Los Angeles. After all, she was just 1-5 in her past five appearances in the Holy City. When a friend told Stephens of her plans to come watch her play at the Volvo Car Open, she encouraged her to get there early.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’ve never won a match there so the earlier you could come in the week, the better,” the 23-year-old American joked.
But in a tournament ruled by upsets this year, it was Stephens who emerged victorious last week on Daniel Island. Stephens won 7-6 (4), 6-2 over Elena Vesnina in the finals Sunday to earn her third WTA title of the season.
“I have a lot of anxiety coming into this tournament because I’ve never done well here,” Stephens said. “I changed my mindset and just thought, ‘You know what? I’m just going to have fun. I have nothing to lose… Just go out and play and have fun.’
“I should just do that every week.”
Stephens, seeded seventh, entered as the favorite in all but one of her five matches. But even she benefited from a bit of upset magic in the tournament semifinals. Facing world No. 2 Angelique Kerber, Stephens controlled the first set 6-1 and built a 3-0 lead in the second before the defending tournament champion was forced to retire with a viral illness. Kerber was the only player seeded in the tournament’s top four seeds to make the semifinals. Five of the top eight were eliminated before the quarterfinals.
Vesnina, ranked 85th in the world, was the first qualifier to make the finals in the tournament’s 44-year history. The Russian won seven matches, and played in two doubles matches, in eight days just to advance into Sunday’s finals.
“That’s quite a lot,” Vesnina said. “For me, actually, this final is like a win. I know there is only one winner. And for all the athletes, there is only one place No. 1. But here, today, I feel like I’m a winner because I played so many matches from qualifying.”
Vesnina rallied back from a 5-2 first-set deficit to win four straight games and serve for the set before Stephens halted the streak and forced a tiebreaker. Vesnina evened the tiebreaker at 3-3 before Stephens found her rhythm and won four of the next five games.
“I played a really good point at 3 all… Once I started thinking ‘Hit it, be aggressive’ it started coming out more,” Stephens said. “I was playing really passive and I had a bit of T. Rex arms syndrome, so I need to just hit through the ball.”
Stephens went on to win five of the first six games in the second set, outpacing Vesnina on every point.
“She was a little bit better. One step faster, one step better,” Vesnina said. ““At some point, I was just thinking, ‘She’s everywhere.’”
Stephens is the first American to win the tournament since Serena Williams went back-to-back in 2012-13 at the Family Circle Cup. She’s the first American not named Venus or Serena to win it since 2001.
Having already exceeded her own expectations with the tournament championship, Stephens lit up with a surprised look of excitement when Volvo rolled a new baby blue V60 Polestar onto the court as part of her prize.
“Did you know I was getting a car?” she let out excitedly. “Neither did I.”