- Associated Press - Friday, April 8, 2016

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber moved a step closer to her second straight Volvo Car Open title, reaching the semifinals with a 6-2, 6-3 victory over Irina Camelia Begu on Friday.

“I’m feeling like home,” the 28-year-old German told the crowd after her eighth straight match win on the green clay of Charleston.

And this latest victory could be a powerful repeat omen - Kerber topped her Romanian opponent in the quarterfinals for a second straight year. That match last season required Kerber to gut out two difficult tiebreakers to advance. This one was an overpowering barrage of precise groundstrokes and relentless returns.

Kerber, the top seed, will face No. 7 Sloane Stephens, who defeated 14th-seeded Kasatkina 6-1, 5-7, 7-5.

The other semifinal Saturday features fifth-seeded Sara Errani of Italy against Russian qualifier Elena Vesnina.

Kerber was nearly sent packing after her opening match Tuesday night, but she escaped Lara Arruabarrena by winning a third-set tiebreaker. Ever since, Kerber has found her rhythm and defeated her past two opponents by identical scores.

“So the first (clay court) matches, of course, are like the toughest ones,” she said. “Now, I’m feeling better and better. And it’s great, yeah, to play good tennis again on clay.”

Especially when she’s looking to prove at the upcoming French Open that her first Grand Slam title in Melbourne was no fluke.

Sure, it’s early in the clay-court season, but no one’s looked more comfortable on the chalky, dusty, slow surface so far than Kerber while continuing a run of German power at the Volvo Car Open. Women from Germany have won three of the past seven titles here and the past two, with Andrea Petkovic’s 2014 title preceding Kerber’s run to the top a year ago.

“I think the Germans love this tournament,” Kerber said with a grin.

Kerber won the final three games to take the opening set. Begu was up 2-1 and 0-30 in the second set when Kerber rallied back and won the game with a 93 mph ace, which her opponent thought was out although the call was backed by the chair umpire.

Begu’s game unspooled after that. Kerber won eight of the next nine points to move in front for good.

“I was just trying to play more aggressive in the second set and it worked,” she said.

Stephens, the 23-year-old American, continued her best tournament run in six appearances. She had never gotten past her first match before this season and it looked like she might not make it past Kasatkina, who took a 5-4 lead in the final set.

Stephens fought off a match point to tie the set before breaking Kasatkina’s serve to move in front. Stephens showed off her powerful serves, clocking 109 mph on match point that Kasatkina barely got a piece of on the return. Stephens was waiting near the net to tap the floater into the open court to move on.

Stephens, the last American left, pumped her fist to the cheering crowd.

She said the transition to clay and windy conditions made things difficult. “A lot happens out there, but I’m happy I was able to stay calm and play well,” she said.

Errani defeated Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan 7-6 (2), 6-1 while Vesnina topped Laura Siegemund of Germany 7-5, 6-4.

Putintseva, who ousted Venus Williams on Thursday, took aim at a second straight high seed and forced a back-and-forth opening set that needed a tiebreaker.

But Putintseva couldn’t sustain her play as Errani took command and won the last four games to closes out the match.

Vesnina, at 29 the oldest player left in the draw, is looking to make it to the final for the second time in her career. She lost the 2011 title here to Carolina Wozniacki and since then has not made it past the round of 16. Vesnina had to win her way the main draw through qualifying last weekend and now stands a match away from vying for her third career WTA title.

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