Defending champion and world #3 Sloane Stephens has impressed so far at this year’s US Open. But she will face a stern test in the fourth round when she takes on the in-form Belgian Elise Mertens. Stephens has had a good season, with a run to the title in Miami and to the final at the French Open the highlights for her. But Mertens, who has won three titles this year, is sure to provide a stern test for her. Who will come out on top?
Mertens and Stephens have met just once previously. That match came only two weeks ago in Cincinnati in the third round and it was the Belgian who won it. The first set was tight and there was nothing to separate the pair until they reached a tiebreak. But Mertens won it, 8-6, and that seemed to shatter Stephens’ belief in her ability to win the match. Mertens then took control with an early break in the second and she did not relinquish it, quickly wrapping up the win 7-6 6-2.
Path to the fourth round
That defeat to Mertens was Stephens’ last match before she began her title-defence in New York. Her first opponent there was Evgeniya Rodina of Russia who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon but was dismissed 6-1 7-5 by Stephens. But her second-round opponent, Anhelina Kalinina, gave her a scare. Stephens dropped the first set and was forced to dig deep to come through a 4-6 7-5 6-2 winner. But she was more comfortable in beating former-world #1 Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-4.
Mertens, who lost in the quarterfinals in Cincinnati to Petra Kvitova, opened her US Open campaign against Japan’s Kurumi Nara. It did not prove a particularly convincing win for Mertens, but, aided by nine Nara double faults, she won through 6-2 6-7 7-5. She delivered a more commanding performance to crush Belarus’ Vera Lapko 6-0 6-2 in the second round. That win set up a clash with 23rd seed Barbora Strycova who she bested 6-3 7-6.
How do they match up?
Both Stephens and Mertens are impressive athletes most comfortable counter-punching, but capable of stepping in when necessary. So far Stephens’ opponents have hit 56 winners past her, which looks a lot on paper, but they have also made 88 unforced errors. That high number of errors is a reflection of her defensive quality as she has been able to force her opponents to go for more than they usually would. The result has been a lot of errors.
Stephens herself has hit 75 winners. Whilst she has also given up 81 unforced errors, 42 of them came in the second round against Kalinina, a match in which she was far from her best. In her other two matches she has managed to maintain a positive ratio of winners to unforced errors. Mertens began the tournament playing aggressively. She hit 41 winners and 43 unforced errors in her first match. But she has tightened up since then and reverted to a more consistent style of play since.
Thus far there has looked to be little to separate Stephens and Mertens. Both have delivered two excellent performances and a slightly shaky one. But what will surely count in Stephens’ favour is the vocal backing of the home crowd and her greater experience in the latter stages at the Grand Slams. Those advantages could well be decisive. Expect Stephens to edge out the Belgian in three and continue her title-defence into the quarterfinals.