The American had admitted to feeling “uneasy” about the reality that she was the highest seed remaining in the women’s draw after the shock departures of Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, but she showed no signs of nerves in the opening match in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Azarenka’s comeback to the tour has been stagnant but she remains a formidable proposition, as the American discovered throughout the high-quality contest.
Long rallies were aplenty, especially during the latter stages, as both players traded breaks of serve in the second set. Azarenka led by a break in set two and threatened to force a third set, but the defending champion showed her nous in reversing the momentum and booking her place in the fourth round. Elise Mertens awaits after she dispatched Barbora Strycova.
“When things got tough I just hung in there,” beamed Stephens courtside. “I battled as hard as I could, ran down every ball and tried to make every play that I could.”
Indeed, she faced adversity in the second set when Azarenka reeled off three games in succession to not only cancel Stephens’ buffer but to lead by a break of her own.
Until then it had been one-way traffic, with Stephens exhibiting a high-level of tennis during an opening set that showed exactly why she is the provisional top seed with a week and a half remaining of tennis in New York.
She squandered a break point opportunity in the opening service game of the match but she was rewarded for her quick start when she broke in the Belarusian’s next service game.
Her striking was clean but she was aided by an untimely double-fault from Azarenka at 30-40. She consolidated the break for 3-1 and her composure from the line was of such rich quality she had lost only two points behind serve.
Azarenka threatened to break back but she overcooked a backhand from mid-court as Stephens wrapped up the opening set with some swagger.
The second frame was topsy-turvy, with Stephens appearing to be in control when she broke for 3-1. But she gifted the advantage straight back with a shaky service game.
Normal service appeared to resume when Stephens fashioned triple break point but Azarenka stood firm, reeling off five points in succession. The confidence which she gained from that spilled into the following service game as she broke the resistance of Stephens.
However, a short rain delay prompted the closure of the roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium and when play resumed ten minutes later Stephens was a different animal.
She broke back as Azarenka sent a forehand wide and showed tremendous staying power to fight off break point on her own serve.
The momentum had shifted and it surprised no-one when Stephens constructed double match point and converted with a running passing shot off a volley from the Belarusian. She marches on.