Sloane Stephens has no illusions about how she’s played in Charleston up until this week.
“I’ve always played like garbage here,” said the WTA star, who had a 1-5 main-draw record in five previous visits to Daniel Island.
That garbage has turned to Carolina gold this week.
Stephens, the No. 7 seed, cruised into Sunday’s Volvo Car Open final when defending champion and world No. 2 Angelique Kerber was forced to retire from Saturday’s semifinal with a viral illness. The score was 6-1, 3-0, ret.
Stephens, ranked No. 25, will gun for her first Charleston title and third championship of the year at 1 p.m. Sunday against qualifier Elena Vesnina. Vesnina, ranked No. 85, became the first qualifier to make the finals in the 44 years of this tournament with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 win over No. 5 seed Sara Errani.
Though she had to win two qualifying matches to reach the main draw, the 29-year-old Vesnina is no unproven rookie. She was once a top 25 player, has two WTA Tour titles to her credit and made the finals here in 2011, losing to then-No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.
A shoulder injury suffered at the U.S. Open in 2014 set her back, but the newly married Vesnina is on the comeback trail, having won seven straight matches this week.
“It took a while for me to recover after that,” said Vesnina, who is from Russia. “I was struggling with confidence, I was losing some points, I was dropping in the ranking, I was not winning matches. And it was really difficult to come up. I’m really happy that I actually doing well now, and I’m not actually looking at my ranking that much. I’m just looking at my game. That’s, I think, the most important thing.”
A large crowd at Volvo Car Stadium on Saturday anticipated a heavyweight showdown between top-seed Kerber and Stephens, who had split two earlier matches in their careers. But on a cool, breezy afternoon, it was clear from the start that the 28-year-old Kerber was not at her best.
Kerber lost the first set by 6-1 and called for the trainer in the second set. She staggered through that game before hugging Stephens and telling her she could not continue. Stephens said she had no clue until the match started that Kerber was ill.
“I just thought I’m going out to play a match,” Stephens said. “I just thought it was going to be a battle. And unfortunately she wasn’t feeling well. But I mean it’s understandable, it happens. I wish her well. I hope she gets better soon because I know they have Fed Cup coming up next week. That’s all you can really do in that sort of situation.”
Kerber’s victory here last year launched her to three more wins in 2015, and then to her first Grand Slam title, at the Australian Open in January. There, she defeated No. 1 Serena Williams in the final, pushing her own ranking to No. 2.
Kerber was tested in the second round here, with Lara Arruabarrena pushing her to three sets. But she won her next two matches by the same score (6-2, 6-3) and appeared in good shape to attempt a title defense this weekend.
But her body language was not good from the start on Saturday. She face-palmed after missing one forehand early, then shook her head after another errant shot. Early in the second set, trainers appeared to take her blood pressure and temperature.
“I am sad and disappointed because I love Charleston, and I always when I’m going on court trying to give my best,” Kerber said. “And for sure I wasn’t 100 percent today, like everybody (could see) this. I’m sad to retire and couldn’t give 100 percent today.”
Kerber said she did not feel right even in her warm-up.
“When I was warming up this morning, I felt a little bit like something is wrong,” she said. “But I was thinking that when I’m going on court, the energy will come back and I will feeling okay. And it starts in the first few games in the first set that I was feeling that, yeah, something is not good.”
For Stephens, the Volvo Car Open final continues a feast-or-famine year for the 23-year-old. She’s either won -- two titles in Acapulco and Auckland this year -- or gone out in her opening match (three times, including last week in Miami). She’s just glad to have finally figured out how to play on Daniel Island’s green clay.
“I think I just came in thinking, ‘I love this tournament; I have nothing to lose, and I’ve always played like garbage here,’” she said. “I need to just figure it out.
“I just tried to say to myself I don’t have anything to lose. I might as well just go have fun. I love Charleston. Why wouldn’t I want to be here until Sunday? So I think taking on that mindset has helped me because I’m going to be here on Sunday.”