US Open champion and world number 13 Sloane Stephens finally earned her maiden victory over former world number one and two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka in their blockbuster second-round meeting at the BNP Paribas Open, snapping a three-match losing streak against the Belarusian, where all of their past meetings all came at the Australian Open.
Stephens recovered from an early deficit and claimed seven straight games which left Azarenka stunned as the 2016 champion, who was returning from a custody battle for her newborn, was misfiring and won just 11 points throughout the first set. Despite a tougher fight from the Belarusian in the second set, Stephens showed nerves of steel and ultimately earned the straight-sets victory after just an hour and 15-minutes of play.
This match was scheduled to have taken place a day earlier, but rain washed out the night and therefore it was postponed a day later. Stephens, who seems to be regaining her confidence, looks in great form and will now face talented youngster Daria Kasatkina in the third round.
Stephens strolls to take the first set
It was a match full of momentum swings — even the smallest of all could make a difference. Stephens was firing in the opening points, looking in great form as she led 30-0 in the first game before Azarenka found her groove immediately, blasting two return winners and a smash to claim the break, rattling four consecutive points.
However, it was the only thing Azarenka could celebrate about throughout the first set. Her serves were not working well and she totally lost the plot, failing to find her range as consecutive errors saw her getting broken straight back to love. Rising in confidence, Stephens was rolling through the points and claimed 16 of the last 18 points to open up a commanding 4-1 lead.
The Belarusian finally earned game points on her serve but failed to convert as Stephens was rock solid at the baseline, often dragging the former world number one from side to side and outlasting her in rallies. Grabbing the golden opportunity to serve out the first set, the American dutifully completed her job as she sealed the flawless first set 6-1 after just a mere 25 minutes of play, rattling off six consecutive games.
Azarenka puts up a tough fight but ultimately falls in straight sets
Azarenka’s struggles on her serves continued to bother her — after a horrific first set which saw her win just four service points. Unforced errors were overwhelming the two-time Grand Slam champion and she was once again broken in the opening game of the second set. However, this time Stephens was unable to consolidate her advantage as Azarenka finally started to find her footing, with her backhand fortress slowly finding its way back.
Four consecutive breaks started the second set and it was surprisingly Azarenka who had the first service hold, her first of the match, and she was slowly returning into her vintage form which saw her lift the title on her last appearance in Indian Wells back in 2016. Determined to exact three consecutive defeats at the Australian Open to the same player, Stephens handled the pressure well and played catch-up.
However, nerves ultimately caught up when Stephens was serving to stay in the set at 4-5 down. She found herself in a dangerous position, trailing 0-30 while Azarenka has all the momentum running in her. Unexpectedly, four consecutive errors from Azarenka saw her throw away her chances, allowing Stephens to grab the confidence-boosting hold.
The array of errors continued to come from the resurgent Belarusian, who was playing her first tournament in six months, though Stephens was producing some high-quality shots as well. It proved to be costly as Stephens eventually rode on her high confidence, rattling off 12 of the last 13 points to triumph in straight sets.