Playing their best tennis, watch out for Vesnina

Russia's Elena Vesnina hits a forehand against Italy's Sara Errani during the semi-finals of the Volvo Car Open Saturday, April 9, 2016. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Sloane Stephens is playing the best tennis of her young life.

She hardly had to play at all on Saturday, though, to reach the final of the inaugural Volvo Car Open.

Slightly older in her tennis life at age 29, Elena Vesnina had to play much harder to reach her second singles final at Family Circle Tennis Center. Even at that, Vesnina very likely also could be playing the best tennis of her career. At least, that’s the way her game has looked through seven straight victories in the Volvo Open, including a pair in qualifying.

Vesnina looks like a slugger, a pure striker of the ball from both sides. Most of the time, that doesn’t work on clay against a pure clay-courter such as Sara Errani. But by the end on Saturday, Vesnina had taken away the will of her little Italian opponent.

The 29-year-old Russian simply outslugged Errani. That’s hard to do on clay against an opponent with so much nimbleness and touch in her game, but yet with consistently strong ground strokes. Errani seemed to lose heart when she lost a close game to fall behind 4-2 in the third set of a 6-4, 4-6, 6-2 loss to Vesnina.

Meanwhile, Stephens’ 6-1, 3-0 advancement when ailing defending champion Angelique Kerber retired was hardly a matchup as Kerber put up a fight in only the game she won, the fifth game of the match.

But Stephens’ always explosive game has matured to the point where fans might not miss having a Serena or Venus Williams around for Sunday’s Volvo Open final.

A bit erratic earlier in her career, the 23-year-old American appears to have learned when to pull the trigger on her shots and when not to. She has so much “easy power” she doesn’t have to go for broke on every shot. She kind of floats around the court these days until an opening occurs.

Why not play that way again Sunday? Stephens already is 2-0 in finals this year.

A seeded player who has been regarded as her country’s next great player against an older qualifier ranked 85th in the world wouldn’t look like much of a matchup on paper.

But Vesnina is a fighter. She repeatedly demonstrated that trait against Errani, who may have been expecting the Russian to collapse in the manner of Moscow resident Yulia Putintseva on Friday night after a long tiebreaker first set.

Not Vesnina. She made her share of errors. But for every mistake, she pounded a dozen or two mighty forehands or backhands to Errani’s forehand corner.

For that reason, Vesnina cannot be overlooked. She has the game to put Stephens on the defensive and to keep her there. Don’t be surprised if Vesnina forces Stephens out of her comfort zone, and into over-hitting.

Vesnina didn’t get the title the first time in 2011 against Caroline Wozniacki, but don’t count her out of this one.

My pick: Vesnina.

Charleston Southern (13-4, 7-2) faces a tough task in repeating as the Big South Conference women’s champions this spring. After winning regular-season and tournament titles in 2015, the Bucs tied Coastal Carolina in the regular-season standings behind co-winners Liberty and Winthrop.

“It will be a dog fight,” veteran CSU coach Mike Baker said, looking ahead to next weekend’s Big South tournament in Lynchburg, Va. “We are all close. We need to rest and we have to love the challenge.”

Charleston Southern will play Campbell next Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Big South tournament.

Unbeaten Hanahan is gearing up for a big test on Wednesday at Summerville. The Chad Nash-led Hawks lead their AAA region while Summerville tops 8-AAAA.

In 7-AAAA, there’s a new face at the top of the standings: James Island. The Brendan Healey-led Trojans are 4-0 in a region that is usually dominated by Wando. And these two teams will square off Tuesday at Wando.

Coach John Eppelsheimer also is smiling about James Island’s brand new lighted six-court tennis complex at the school. “New courts are wonderful,” he said. “Lots of interest from the community to use them. Court space on James Island is very limited.”

Reach James Beck at jamesbecktennis@gmail.com