STEPHENS DETHRONES KEYS AT CHARLESTON OPEN

STEPHENS DETHRONES KEYS AT CHARLESTON OPEN

SEEDS KENIN, BENCIC, MERTENS FOLLOW DEFENDING CHAMP OUT OF DRAW ON DAY OF UPSETS IN CHARLESTON

If Sloane Stephens was looking for a moment to jumpstart her year, she might have found it.

On Wednesday night at LTP Daniel Island Tennis Center, the 28-year-old American dethroned defending Charleston Open champion Madison Keys, 6-4, 6-4, for her fourth win in five matches against her longtime friend and former junior foe.

Stephens, a titlist here in 2016, earned a spot in the Round of 16 playing against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, a 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 winner over 17th seed Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic earlier in the day.

It was a much-anticipated rematch of the 2017 US Open final, which saw these same opponents go head-to-to head on the biggest stage in the sport. Stephens was the winner that night, too, famously comforting Keys at the net after securing the first Grand Slam title of her career in straight sets.

Could this be that spark, that jumpstart she spoke of earlier this week?

“You have to do everything in your control to get that feeling back — the competitiveness, your game, your feeling, all of that,” said Stephens, who scored back-to-back wins for the first time in 2021. “I think I am going on the upswing. If tonight was the night, then amazing. But I think right now, I’m just super focused on trying to get my game back, get back to where I was and just be a little happier on the court and feel more like myself.”

Stephens was 0-for-6 on her break point opportunities in the opening set on Wednesday before making good on a seventh, then stepped up to serve out the stanza in 48 minutes. She struck early in the second set, a timely break in the third game setting her apart for good.

It looked as if a zoning Amanda Anisimova was going to make quick work of hometown favorite Shelby Rogers in the nightcap. However, ahead 6-1, 3-1, the 19-year-old American appeared to injure her groin and she later called for a trainer. When she returned to the court after taking a medical timeout, her right thigh was heavily taped and her movement was clearly compromised.

Rogers would take six of the next eight games to force a decider, with her opponent taking out her frustration on her racquet. A subsequent code violation for leaving the court for an unauthorized purpose would result in a point penalty for Anisimova to start the third set.

There were six straight breaks in the final set before Rogers finally held serve. Three games later, she had pulled off the most improbable of comeback wins, 1-6, 7-5, 6-4. With the victory, Rogers will move up to a new career-high ranking inside the Top 50.

World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, fresh off her title defense at the Miami Open, launched her clay season in dominating fashion, rolling past lefthander Misaki Doi of Japan, 6-2, 6-1, in just 61 minutes. Barty, who came into the event with a tour-leading 106 aces in 2021, added seven more to that total in the winning effort on Wednesday night.

Remarkably, it was Barty’s first match on a clay court since winning the Roland Garros title in 2019.

“I think I had to use it as an opportunity just to try and build some comfort,” said Barty. “Finally having a couple of days between Miami and playing this first match, it allowed my body to rest, but also to try to prepare to change surfaces. It was a quick turnaround, but I felt great out there tonight. The conditions here are very quick. It’s not your traditional European red clay, but it’s a nice middleman. I’m pleased with the way I was able to get through tonight.”

The day got off to a wild start on the Althea Gibson Club Court with 71st-ranked Spaniard Paula Badosa shocking 5th seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 6-2, 6-7(2), 6-1. It marked the first Top-20 win of Badosa’s career, but it didn’t come without a fight. The New York-born/Barcelona-raised baseliner had a pair of match points on her racquet in the second set, but was forced to go the distance when Bencic, like Badosa a former Roland Garros girls’ singles titlist, nullified them.

“I couldn’t close the match,” said the 23-year-old Badosa. “I was so, so nervous because I knew it was a big match. It was tough, but then I played a very good third set. I served very well, so I’m quite happy.”

Bencic reached the Charleston Open semifinals in her 2014 debut, and the quarterfinals in 2019.

Badosa will next face 118th-ranked American Catherine McNally, who posted an upset of her own. McNally was a 7-6(3), 2-6, 6-4 winner over No. 47 Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia.

In a nervy match that featured no less than a combined 15 service breaks, Lauren Davis outlasted No. 2 seed Sofia Kenin, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, in two hours and 35 minutes. Kenin called for a medical timeout trailing 0-3 in the final set, but the pause only delayed the final outcome. Just two months removed from an emergency appendectomy, Kenin fell to 7-6 on the year.

“The struggle was definitely real,” said Davis, who improved to 2-1 against her compatriot. “I struggled getting my serve in a bit in the first set and a half, but I kind of figured out midway through to just get a lot of height on it and make a few first serves. That makes my life a lot easier.”

Davis, 27, is a now one round away from matching her best result in Charleston, a quarterfinal showing in 2015.

No. 7 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium fell to Frenchwoman Alizé Cornet, 7-5, 6-3. A semifinalist here back in 2008, Cornet also got the best of Mertens when they met in Fed Cup play in 2019.

Coco Gauff, 18, continues to make the most of her first appearance at the Volvo Car Open. Down a set and a break to Russia’s Liudmila Samonsova on Court 2, the 14th seed reeled off six straight games to force a third set, then went on to complete the comeback, winning 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. Gauff, who matched her opponent with seven aces in the two-hour-long matchup, will next meet Davis in the Round of 16.

No. 12 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia topped American wildcard Hailey Baptiste, 6-3, 6-3, while Japan’s Kurumi Nara downed 18-year-old lucky loser Whitney Osuigwe of the U.S., 6-1, 6-4.

Teen sensation Leylah Fernandez, who captured her maiden WTA title last month in Monterrey Mexico, saw her run come to an end against Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic. The 18-year-old Canadian pushed the match to three sets before falling 6-4, 3-6, 6-3. Also seeing her stay cut short was University of Virginia standout Emma Navarro. The 19-year-old Charleston native, who on Tuesday night had scored her first-ever WTA main-draw win, came out on the short end of a 6-4, 6-4 decision against 15th seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia.

AJLA TOMLJANOVIC ALIZÉ CORNET Ashleigh Barty Belinda Bencic CORI GAUFF ELISE MERTENS Madison Keys Shelby Rogers Sloane Stephens