SINGAPORE – In a match between the last two U.S. Open champions, Sloane Stephens came out on top.
The 2017 champion beat Naomi Osaka 7-5, 4-6, 6-1 Monday at the WTA Finals, the season-ending tournament for the top eight players in the world.
Both players are making their debut appearances at the tournament, but Stephens appeared to be more composed while Osaka, who became the first Japanese to win a Grand Slam title last month in New York, never seemed comfortable.
“I’m just really happy to get through and play a good competitive match,” Stephens said on court after the match. “I never gave up. I knew she’s been playing well and I would have to play really good tennis to beat her.”
Both players struggled to hold serve. Osaka was broken on seven of 19 break-point opportunities, while Stephens was broken on four of 12.
Stephens entered the tournament with 33 wins this season, the least of any of the eight qualifiers. She reached her second career Grand Slam final at this year’s French Open, and won the Miami title.
Osaka continually showed her frustration during the match. When she failed to capitalize on four break points in the fourth game of the second set, she made a visible shrugging gesture with both hands.
Stephens gifted the second set to Osaka when she double-faulted on a second set point in the 10th game. But Osaka appeared to be mentally fatigued and only managed to hold serve in the third game of the final set.
Nevertheless, Osaka was encouraged in knowing she’ll play at least two more matches in the round-robin format.
“I took my five minutes of being really sad,” Osaka said. “I just tried to think that you learn more when you lose, so what can I learn from this match and try to apply it to the next match?
“I think, in a way, that you can only get better every match you play.”
Kiki Bertens, who qualified for the draw when No. 1 Simona Halep withdrew with a herniated disk in her back, fought back to beat top seed Angelique Kerber 1-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“I was really happy to turn this match around,” Bertens said. “I had a little (on-court) chat with my coach when it wasn’t going so well. We decided I should go a little bit more for my shots and be more aggressive.”
The first seven games of the third set were service breaks before Bertens held for a 5-3 lead. Kerber, a finalist here in 2016, finally held in the ninth game, but couldn’t prevent Bertens from serving out the match.
“I started really well and she started playing better and better and then I dropped a little bit with my intensity,” Kerber said. “In the third set I had so many chances and I couldn’t take it.”
Kerber plays Osaka and Stephens takes on Bertens in the second group matches on Wednesday.
On-court coaching addressed
Monica Seles isn’t a fan of on-court coaching. Lindsay Davenport can see the benefits. Jennifer Capriati is right in the middle.
The three tennis greats took part in a news conference Monday at the WTA Finals to discuss the topic, which made plenty of headlines after Serena Williams was penalized for on-court coaching during the U.S. Open final.
The WTA Tour has allowed limited on-court coaching since 2008, while the men’s tour and Grand Slam tournaments don’t permit any coaching during matches.
“My feeling is, as a former player, I personally don’t like the on-court coaching,” Seles said. “I think as a player at the highest level in your profession, you should be able to think for yourself. My dad always used to say before I stepped on court two things: ‘Move your feet and think.’ “
Patrick Mouratoglou, the longtime coach of Serena Williams, last week posted a letter on social media supporting on-court coaching. He indicated his opinion derives from the recent incident at the U.S. Open when he was caught signaling from his courtside box to Williams to move forward.
As a rule, Williams doesn’t use the on-court coaching option at WTA tournaments and denied seeing Mouratoglou’s signal in New York, which he admitted to doing during that loss to Naomi Osaka.
“Coaching is a vital component of any sporting performance,” Mouratoglou said in his letter. “Yet, banning it almost makes it look as if it had to be hidden or as if it was shameful.”
Davenport, who has had an on again-off again coaching relationship with Madison Keys the past few years, said there are merits to on-court coaching but flaws exist.
“I think another topic to that whole conversation is that like another advantage to the top players?” Davenport said. “What about all the players maybe ranked, I don’t know where that number is, 60 and below, that can’t afford a coach every week?”
Capriati isn’t completely convinced, but she’s not against it either.
“I’m kind of on the fence about it,” Capriati said. “Part of it is when you’re there, I mean how much can a coach do at that point? If you need a coach at that point, I think you’re kind of lost.
“Then I thought about myself and playing, it could have maybe made all the difference in the world.”
Sascha Bajin, who was a hitting partner for Williams for eight years, is now the head coach for Osaka. He is also not a fan of the concept but he dutifully went on court when Osaka called for a consultation midway through the first set against Stephens on Monday.
“If I have to look back why I started with this sport it was because my father and my mother wanted to teach me something,” Bajin said. “I was learning to overcome problems myself. I think something beautiful about this sport is that it’s really only you and to be a good problem-solver.”