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US Open | Stephens steps past Azarenka

US Open | Stephens steps past Azarenka

Defending champion Sloane Stephens marched into the US Open last 16 with a comprehensive victory over two-time finalist Victoria Azarenka in the Big Apple where the temperature had cooled significantly from the opening four scorching days.

Stephens had toiled against Anhelina Kalinina in the previous round but was way more impressive this time around at Flushing Meadows in her 6-3 6-4 win against Azarenka, the highest remaining seed at No 3 too good for the former World No 1.

From the outset Stephens was in control of proceedings, her groundstrokes piercing holes in her opponent’s defence, the American seemingly having all the time in the world to plot Azarenka’s downfall.

I just hung in there,I was just battling as hard as I could. Sloane Stephens

It did not take her long to gain an advantage as an error-strewn display from Azarenka allowed Stephens an early break, one that she consolidated with a fine service game.

While Stephens was unerringly accurate, her opponent grew frustrated at her inability to keep rallies flowing, Azarenka all too often finding the net or sending forehands beyond the lines.

Another mistake handed Stephens the first set after 37 minutes and there was a sense of deja-vu in the opening games of the second.

Having saved a break point on her own serve in the third game, Stephens upped the pressure on Azarenka and it immediately paid off as the Belarusian failed to convert from 40-15.

Stephens battled back to deuce and with the advantage, she saw Azarenka fire wide to give her a 3-1 lead.

It was not all plain sailing, however, as the two-time Grand Slam champion bounced straight back and threatened to level things up, but a rain shower halted her momentum and, once the roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium had closed, Stephens regained her composure to seal a meeting with Elise Mertens after an hour, 46 minute.

“I just hung in there,” Stephens told the fans. “I was just battling as hard as I could.”

What had helped Stephens after the eight-minute delay?

“Just kind of refocusing,” she said.

With light rain falling, play was halted while the roof was closed, although play carried on everywhere else, including the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, the only other arena at Flushing Meadows with a retractable roof.

“The man upstairs was looking out for me,” Stephens said. “Unlucky for her.”

When they resumed, she took control.

“I mean, of course, it was a change of momentum. I won’t be sitting here finding excuses; it’s just what happens. You just have to accept (it),” said Azarenka, who won the Australian Open twice and lost to Serena Williams in the US Open final twice.

“I just think from the tournament side, if they [were] expecting the showers, I think it might be better to just close the roof right from the beginning. I think it would just be smarter.”

Later she was quizzed about her coach, to whom she has remained loyal despite her slump in form following her US Open triumph last year.

“I think you have to just stick with what you know,” said Stephens, who after parting ways with Nick Saviano in 2016 hired Kamau Murray and has stuck with the Chicagoan.

“Sometimes a lot of people panic and fire their coach, need a change.

“There are times I absolutely do not want to speak to my coach and I think he’s the worst person on the planet. But he helps me win and knows what’s best for me, so you kind of have to go with that.”

Her next opponent, No 15 seed Elise Mertens of Belgium, took out the 23rd-seeded Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, 6-3 7-6, in the first match of the day on Friday in Louis Armstrong Stadium.

The 22-year-old Belgian, who reached the semis of the Australian Open earlier this year, moved into the fourth round of the Open for the first time in her career.

Mertens looked to be cruising in the second set, up a break and serving at 4-3, but she was broken in the eighth game, and just barely managed to avoid a third set, saving three break points while serving at 5-6.

The Belgian fell behind 3-1 in the tiebreak before reeling off 6 of the last 7 points of the match.

Mertens only hit two more winners than Strycova in the match, 21 to 19, but her superior power off her groundstrokes and impressive court coverage, allowed her to control points when she needed to most.

“[Strycova] played a great game today,” Mertens told the media, after the match. “I think I stepped up in the first set, a little more aggressive. Of course, she comes to the net a lot. But, not a lot of mistakes; in the rallies, if it came back shorter, I tried to make the point.”

Elsewhere, Ash Barty ended the run of giant-killing Czech qualifier Karolina Muchova, 6-3 6-4, and will play 8th-seeded 2016 finalist Karolina Pliskova, who saw off American teenage prodigy Sofia Kenin in the Day 5’s final women’s singles clash.

Riding her booming serve, Barty charged to a 3-0 lead in the opening set.

After a brief revival by the Czech, Barty claimed a second break then the first set in 33 minutes.

She raced to a 4-0 lead in the second before clinching victory on her fourth match point after an hour and 25 minutes.

“You have to go one match at a time to get stuck into the tournament and to get into the second week is a big move, sort of a big hurdle, but there’s a very long way to go,” said Barty.

“Hopefully it’s nice for my team and my family and everyone who’s with me. We can kind of enjoy everything from now.

“It’s a bit of a bonus from here on.”

Seventh seed Elina Svitolina took out Qiang Wang, 6-4 6-4, and Anastasija Sevastova beat Ekaterina Makarova, 4-6 6-1 6-2.

It took Sevastova 2 hours and 2 minutes to win this match, displaying persistence and versatility as she turned the tables on a bewildered opponent.

Makarova’s utilitarian qualities carried off the first set, the Russian first tracking down a drop shot and crushing a volley winner, then closing out the game with a thunderous down-the-line backhand that landed just inside both lines to give her a 4-2 lead.

Sevastova broke back in the next game, but she played a miserable game at 4-5, feebly netting a forehand at 15 to gift Makarova the set.

The Latvian had to carve her way back, using the drop-shot and lob to increasingly greater effect.

It was difficult to tell who was aided more by the shift in weather, the conditions now 20 degrees cooler than the oven-like heat of the previous three days.

Makarova won her share of points responding to that troublesome combo, but over time, as the match wore on, she became just fatigued enough to provide Sevastova with increasing openings in space, time, fitness.

After Sevastova won the second set, 6-1, the stage appeared set for a hearty battle but the damage had been done.

With Sevastova serving at 2-2, 30-30 in the third, Makarova was pacing around the court uncomfortably and after a gruelling 15-ball rally, lost the edge on an errant Russian backhand.

On the next point, Makarova stumbled badly to a forehand to drop the game and called from the trainer, who wrapped her right thigh.

She dropped the next four games and faced match point on her serve at 2-5, 15-40, which came in the form of a Sevastova backhand drop shot winner.

Sevastova next takes on No 7 seed Elina Svitolina who, on a cloudy day in Louis Armstrong Stadium, eased into the fourth round with a quick 6-4 6-4 win over world No 52 Qiang Wang in 69 minutes.

Wang has a reputation for upsets but Svitolina was just too solid.

In the first set, Wang double-faulted on break point to give the Ukrainian a 3-1 lead.

The Ukrainian held the advantage until serving at 4-2 when Wang began to move forward in the rallies and fire more winners.

The pair stayed on serve until 5-4, but after starting the 10th game with an ace, Wang had trouble controlling her shots, giving Svitolina two break point opportunities.

She only needed one, sealing the set with a backhand winner.

The two played a six-minute game to start the second, Wang failing to convert 4 break point opportunities but managing to capitalise on the 5th when Svitolina sent a backhand into the net.

Wang played two solid service games, serving 3 of her 5 aces in the match and taking advantage of some unforced errors from Svitolina.

Serving at 3-2, however, Wang faltered and was broken to love, ending the game with a double fault.

The Chinese then lost eight of the next nine points, which allowed Svitolina to serve for the match at 5-3.

Thanks to some errors and a double fault, Wang got the break back and served to stay in the match, but she could not win a single point. Svitolina won the match breaking at love with a backhand volley winner.

The Ukrainian may be flying under the radar but, after a three-set fight with American Sachia Vickery, she has now won her last two matches in straight sets, both in under 70 minutes.


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