Sloane Stephens earned two championship points with a service winner in Sunday’s Citi Open women’s singles final, but she knew better than to think her first WTA title would come easily.
The 22-year-old first gained fame by beating Serena Williams in the 2013 Australian Open and topping out at No. 11 in the world rankings during that year. But during the past two seasons, she has fallen back into the 30s while earning the unwanted designation of being the highest-ranked player without a WTA final appearance. She was 0-6 in semifinal matches entering this week’s tournament.
So Stephens was prepared when she faced yet another setback, albeit a minor one, in the form of a return winner from Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova that brought the score of the final game to 40-30. Stephens responded by winning the next point to seal the 6-1, 6-2 victory in 1 hour 3 minutes.
On Saturday night, Stephens said she did not have a plan for how she might celebrate a championship victory. Sunday, she held her hands up and paused for a moment before flinging them downward in a full-body bow at the end of the match. Then came a polite thank you to the umpire and a wave to the crowd.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” Stephens said. “Nothing was rushed. Nothing was given to me. I had to work for everything, and it was just nice that all the hard work and everything that I put into it, now I can say that I have a tournament title.”
In the first game of the match, Pavlyuchenkova earned four break points, but Stephens saved every one. The American did not allow her opponent to get another break point in the first set, speeding to a 6-1 set victory in 27 minutes thanks to 12 winners and two breaks of her own.
Stephens grabbed an early break in the second set, chasing down a drop shot and tapping it over the net to earn a 2-1 lead.
Pavlyuchenkova then got her shoulder evaluated while Stephens swung on air to stay loose. When action resumed, Pavlyuchenkova broke back, but Stephens regained control a game later, taking a 3-2 games lead on one of her 12 forehand winners in the match.
Two games later, Stephens broke Pavlyuchenkova for the third time in the set, beating her opponent from the baseline after the game went to deuce. Stephens often took advantage of Pavlyuchenkova’s second serve, winning 53 percent of those points in the second set.
“Unfortunately I had no more gas left in my body and my arm was bothering me these last two days,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “But I have to give her credit as well. She played aggressive and quite consistent as well, making me uncomfortable on the court.”
In her on-court post-match speech, Stephens said hello to her grandparents, because she was not able to FaceTime with them like she said she normally does every Sunday. She later had to be cued to lift the Citi Open’s crystal trophy.
Stephens advanced to her first WTA title match Saturday night by beating No. 2 seed Samantha Stosur, 7-6, 6-0, meaning Stephens closed out the tournament on a 18-3 games streak. She did not drop a set all week.
The 24-year-old Pavlyuchenkova advanced to the final when the tournament’s top seed and Pavlyuchenkova’s fellow Russian, Ekaterina Makarova, retired during their semifinal match. Earlier in the tournament, Pavlyuchenkova knocked out third-seeded Belinda Bencic. This is Pavlyuchenkova’s second loss in the Citi Open final after advancing in 2012. She reached a career high ranking of 13th in 2011 but has dropped to 40th.
Both Pavlyuchenkova and Stephens entered Sunday’s final unseeded.
Stephens, the daughter of all-American swimmer Sybil Smith and former NFL player John Stephens, turned pro in 2010 and ended 2011 as the youngest player to be in the top 100 that year. She later became the youngest player in the top 20 before dealing with a wrist injury in 2014. She made her second career WTA semifinal in Washington in 2012 but lost there to Magdalena Rybarikova.
“To get to this place, to get to this beautiful trophy, I had to go through a lot,” Stephens said. “But at the end of the day, it was worth it.”