US Open 2018: Sloane Stephens rolls through Victoria Azarenka in straight sets
Victoria Azarenka was denied a third time by Sloane Stephens this season to end her run at the US Open 2018 on Friday. The strength of the defending champion Stephens was still too much for her to deal with as the 25-year-old world number three got a great 6-3, 6-4 straight sets-win on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center. The offense of the American was on fire and she never lost her energy in a well-focused victory to advance into the Round of 16.
The American has had her opponent’s number this season with two wins prior to the US Open that saw Azarenka fall just when she was close to returning to her spot in the ranks. She nearly had a spot back in the final until Stephens pulled off a 6-1 win in the third set, where she eventually won the title in Miami.
As she looked for her third straight over the Belarusian, she carried a target on her back as the defending champion, who everyone would want to take out to prevent a repeat. Azarenka’s two wins over Kuzmova and Gavrilova gave her a shot at pulling off the upset and continuing her quest to win a title in New York.
She had to work her opening game against Stephens, winning it on deuce, before taking on Stephens who had the ball in the second. She held better than her opponent to even up before getting the break on Azarenka’s double fault.
She took a 3-1 lead as her offense was in fine form early against the former world number one. The Belarusian managed to hold in the fifth but was still two games down when the American held thereafter. Azarenka bounced back to hold a second time in the seventh, knowing that consistency could get her back into a tie as the set inched closer to a conclusion.
Stephens made the push to get to 5-3 and attacked Azarenka’s serve to hunt down the break to lead the match. She achieved three set points before a short rally ended with the 29-year-old hitting the ball into the net after 37 minutes of play. She scored 22 of 23 from the first serve that showed the dominance of the 29-year-old, who had a dozen unforced errors and a first serve well below that of her opponent. A push to keep herself in a tie with the American would be key for a possible third set chance.
The second set had Stephens taking points with a strong service hold before Azarenka answered with one of her own. She tried to break the 25-year-old but the returns coming back were hard to handle, finding herself a game down in the third.
After holding again in the fourth, Stephens had her chance to go up 4-1 but double-faulted on the break point for Azarenka to keep her within reach. The Belarusian made a true effort to battle back the problems and hold one in the sixth.
She had to come back and save some break points to get on deuce which was assisted by a good challenge. It took her two breaks before she got it on a forced error from Stephens which leveled her for the first time.
The seventh was a big battle for control as both Stephens and Azarenka wanted the lead for themselves. With Azarenka in a spot to put herself in the lead, she battled the third seed to a few breaks on deuce before capturing the win. Drops of rain began to fall on the court, which sent officials out to inform that the match would take a break to close the roof so that play could continue.
When play resumed, it was Azarenka who got Stephens even at four all, making enough wide returns to give her the break. With just two to go, Stephens jumped into the ninth, where a service hold would go a long way, but despite her efforts, Azarenka got to deuce where every point would give her a chance to take the leverage herself. Despite the fight she gave the world number three, it was no use to attain the AD point, which Stephens locked down to earn a chance for the match.
The 29-year-old made it her intention not to give the American anything on serve in the ninth, putting the game away quickly and dug in to save the set from ending. Azarenka got behind on the score that set up Stephens with two match points. She ended the 1 hour-and-48 minutes match with an amazing hit from the net, running at it on an angle to send it far out of reach of her adversary.
It was only the 19th winner of the match, but one that she must have enjoyed because it pushed her near the halfway point of her title defense. She will have a challenge on her hands against Belgium’s Elise Mertens, who has the skills to pull off an upset.