The second Premier Mandatory tournament of 2018 is coming to a close with Saturday’s final at the Miami Open all set between Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens. Following on Indian Wells, it’s another youthful final! I’ll be watching live on Saturday for the first time in a while. I don’t know if it’s just me but I often lose interest at the ends of tournaments and that’s kind of the case here as i’m already looking forward to Charleston! Still, this is a final worth previewing…
From a set and a break down, Sloane Stephens went on a 10 game winning run to score a superb come-from-behind victory over Victoria Azarenka, 3-6 6-2 6-1 in two hours and nine minutes. While an entertaining match, neither played their best at the same time. After a passive start, Stephens upped both her intensity and aggression, and increasingly won more points behind her first serve. At the same time as Stephens improved, Azarenka lost her rhythm and seemed hampered by a leg injury/cramp in the decider.
Jelena Ostapenko beat the surprise star of the tournament, Danielle Collins, 7-6(1) 6-3 in Thursday’s late night semi-final. Ostapenko saved a set point in a quality opening set where Collins had displayed some of the form that had got her this far. Collins played close to the lines and attacked the match with bundles of attitude and depth. After breaking Ostapenko to love with a fantastic game at 5-5, Collins committed to going for her shots. The American couldn’t close it out as a level-headed Ostapenko produced a handful of well-constructed points. Ostapenko ran away with the tiebreak and didn’t drop her serve again as she came through for the win in one hour and 39 minutes.
This final draws many similarities to the Indian Wells final between Naomi Osaka and Daria Kasatkina. Ostapenko and Stephens have never played each other before on the tour so there are no data points to go by. While both claimed Slam titles in the last year, they are into their first final at the Premier Mandatory level. The match-up also presents two completely different game styles with Ostapenko, the huge hitter, going up against Stephens, the counter-puncher and one of the best movers on the tour.
Both players are building form after slow starts in 2018. As I wrote earlier in the year on the blog, I was not worried about Stephens’s run of losses since the US Open. I watched her first round match against Zhang Shuai in Melbourne and was generally impressed with her level as she just ran out of steam against a quality player and with so few matches under her belt. I’ve been most impressed by her fighting spirit and she rightly keeps going back to the match against Monica Niculescu in the third round. Against Azarenka, she also never threw in the towel and was very resilient.
For Ostapenko, I was most impressed by her composure against Danielle Collins and dealing with the favourite tag. I enjoyed her chats with coach, David Taylor, where she was conversing with him. I feel she is becoming more mature on court in her game and demeanour. Win or lose, she has been more respectful with her opponents at the net this year which is nice to see. Even with the big triumph at Roland Garros, it is important to recognise that Ostapenko is still pretty inexperienced with this being just her third full season on tour.
For the Indian Wells final I went with the more defensively minded player in Kasatkina. I think i’m heading the same way for Miami but with much less confidence, not that the IW pick turned out well!
Stephens is 5-0 in WTA finals (!) and has taken apart some big hitters with clutch and measured play in previous finals. I’m fascinated to see how Stephens approaches the match and whether she can prevent getting pushed back behind the baseline. I do think Stephens will need to step it up here and take a few risks, and that she won’t be able to rely solely on defence and movement.
Ostapenko has had a few dire final showings where she’s completely lost her way. I’d hope that won’t be the case on Saturday and particularly having won her last two, including the French Open final, from a set down. Ostapenko has demonstrated a growing calmness and belief in her game in the crux moments during this tournament.
I’m close to 50-50 on this one… Sloane in 3.