Angelique Kerber has quickly made herself at home in the Lowcountry. It’s taken Sloane Stephens a bit longer to feel comfortable on the green clay of Daniel Island.
The two WTA Tour stars — Kerber, ranked No. 2 in the world and a Grand Slam champion, and Stephens, the perpetually promising American — will meet in Saturday’s semifinals of the Volvo Car Open after taking vastly different routes to get there on Friday.
Kerber, the top seed and defending champion here, cruised past Irina-Camelia Begu by 6-2, 6-3, for her eighth straight match victory at Volvo Car Stadium. Stephens, ranked No. 25, had to fight off a match point to survive Daria Kasatkina of Russia, 6-1, 5-7, 7-5.
Stephens, 23, and Kerber have met twice before, both times on the hard courts of Indian Wells. Kerber won in three sets in 2012, but Stephens took their match last year by 7-6, 6-2.
“Sloane is a great player, I know, and I’ve played against her a few times already,” Kerber said. “I will just try to go out against her and try to take the challenge, to play a good match.”
Stephens definitely recalls that first meeting.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “The first time I played her I was up 6-1, 5-0, I think, and I had like eight match points and I lost. Thanks for reminding me.
“She’s playing well. She’s obviously Grand Slam champion now, so it’s going to be difficult. But I’m looking forward to it, just looking forward to getting out there and competing, and I’m excited for that.”
Stephens also is excited to finally have some on-court success in Charleston, a city she loves to visit. But in five previous appearances on Daniel Island, Stephens had won only one of six main-draw matches.
“At the beginning of the week I was like, oh, my God. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Stephens, who already has won two WTA titles this year. “I was really nervous, because obviously coming into here I haven’t done well here. So I think I had more anxiety and nervousness about just being here.”
Stephens handled the nervy moments well against Kasatkina, who is seeded No. 14 and ranked No. 35. Stephens raced through the first set, but Kasatkina won the second and took a 5-4 lead in the third.
Stephens took over from there, winning the final three games and the final eight points to clinch the victory in two hours and 24 minutes.
“I knew what I had to do,” Stephens said. “I needed to step inside the court and be a little more aggressive. I think I started doing that towards the end of the second set, and then when it came down to it, I was able to just kind of hit my way through.”
Kerber, on the other hand, needed just 72 minutes for her win over Begu, who did not even manage a break point.
“I think I’m getting used to the clay,” Kerber said. “After Miami, I didn’t have too much time to get used to the clay, so the first matches on clay for me are the toughest. Now, I’m feeling better and better.”
Kerber’s victory here last year catapulted her to three more WTA singles titles in 2015 and her first Grand Slam championship, at the Australian Open, in January. She beat world No. 1 Serena Williams there.
“It helps me a lot because I have great memories here,” said Kerber, the top seed. “The people are so nice, and the feeling of being back here at the tournament that was so important for me last year, to coming back on track actually. It’s just a great feeling.”