MADRID, Spain - Li Na and Sloane Stephens met for the first time at the Mutua Madrid Open on Thursday and it was worth the wait, as the two put on a three set thriller for the crowd - with Li winning.
It's rare that two top players take so long to play each other for the first time, but there's a first for everything and Li and Stephens had that first, with a quarterfinal berth at the Premier Mandatory event on the line. Stephens had had some big wins to her name - the best coming against then-World No.3s Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova last year. But she had never had success against Top 2 players, going 0-7 against them - and 0-14 in sets - could Li, the World No.2, be her biggest conquest?
The Turning Point
For a while it looked like she would be. After Li held serve in the first game of the match Stephens went on a tear, reeling off five games in a row - including two breaks - to go up 5-1 in the first set, a few holds later putting the opening frame away in 37 minutes. Things didn't look too bright for Li.
But the No.2-seeded Chinese held her nerve, broke early in the second set and never looked back, riding that one break to take the set and storming out to a 4-0 lead in the third. She would eventually put the No.16-seeded Stephens away in exactly two hours on Manolo Santana court, 2-6, 6-3, 6-2.
"She played well; she was hitting the ball heavy," Li said of Stephens. "I felt normal at the beginning of the match, but when I lost that service game from 40-0 up, I was thinking about it for the whole set. I started making a lot of unforced errors and gave her so many points, and she was doing well, as well. But after the first set I was like, 'Calm down.' I knew I couldn't think about that game anymore.
"She hits the ball pretty heavy. Normally the girls play more flat, but she plays pretty heavy. She also makes it look pretty easy on the court - she can slide, and she was running well, recovering very well on the court. So yeah, it was the first time we played each other, and she gave me trouble."
By The Numbers
The Stephens first serve was on fire in the first set. Both players' second serves were shaky - they both won just 38% of those points - but Stephens let just three points go on her first serve the entire set, winning 16 of 19 (84%), while Li was a much less sure 12 of 23 on her first serve (52%). Li never even brought up a break point in the first set, while Stephens brought up six (and converted two).
That trend flipped around the next two sets though, as Li brought up seven break points (converting on four) and Stephens got six (but only converted on one). Li just got better and better as it went on.