In a battle of the Grand Slam champions, defending US Open champion Sloane Stephens takes on Victoria Azarenka, who twice lifted the title at Melbourne Park, for a place in the fourth round in Flushing Meadows. But whilst Stephens arrives at the US Open as the third seed, having also reached the French Open final earlier this year, Azarenka has endured a difficult few years, largely due to a protracted custody battle. But who will come out on top?
This will be the sixth meeting between Stephens and Azarenka, with the Belarusian narrowly leading the head-to-head 3-2. That includes a 6-4 6-1 victory in their first meeting, which came five years ago at the Australian Open in the semifinals. Azarenka got the better of Stephens again a year later in Melbourne and then made it a hat-trick of wins ‘Down Under’ with a 6-3 6-2 win in the first round in 2015. But Stephens has won the two meetings between them this year in Indian Wells and Miami.
Path to the third round
Stephens, who arrived in New York after a mixed start to her hard court swing, began her title-defence against Russia’s Evgeniya Rodina, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon, upsetting Madison Keys en route. Stephens started strongly and won through comfortably 6-1 7-5. She then had a real scare in the second round against Anhelina Kalinina of Ukraine, who won the first set and came to within two games of victory. But Stephens managed to see her off 4-6 7-5 6-2.
Azarenka has been looking for consistency all year without quite managing to find it, but she will have taken some encouragement from her performances on the hard courts of North America so far this summer. She opened her US Open campaign against the young Slovakian Viktoria Kuzmova and delivered a fine performance to advance a 6-3 7-5 winner. She then crushed 25th seed Daria Gavrilova 6-1 6-2 to return to the third round at the US Open.
How do they match up?
Both Stephens and Azarenka are terrific movers who are also capable of launching impressive attacking barrages. But it is Stephens who is the more athletic of the two. Indeed, she arguably covers the court better than anyone else on the WTA Tour and that ability to stay alive in a point even when under heavy pressure has long been a vital element of her game. She also has the quality to use the ball well even at the end of her range, enabling her to turn points around with a single shot.
Her serving will receive a stern examination against Azarenka, however. The former-world #1 has long been amongst the best returners in the game and she will look to take advantage of any second serves to assert herself in the point. When she is at her best, her controlled but aggressive hitting allows her to work an opponent over until the opportunity to strike a winner presents itself. That patience in offence will be crucial for her against a player with Stephens’ defensive qualities.
This should be a thrilling match. Indeed, on nearly any day of Grand Slam action it would be the best match of the day, but it may well have to share the limelight with a potential clash between Venus and Serena. Nonetheless, it promises excitement and both women will feel they have a good chance of winning it. But, Stephens will receive the vocal backing of the crowd and has more recent memories of success to draw on. That should enable her to just edge it in three.