CINCINNATI, OH, USA - Last year, the North American hard court swing first reignited Sloane Stephens' career, then propelled it to the next level - and the No.3 seed at the Western & Southern Open is picking up her form exactly where she left off, opening her campaign with a 6-3, 6-2 defeat of qualifier Tatjana Maria in one hour and 11 minutes.
In 2017, back-to-back semifinals in Toronto and Cincinnati set the stage for a shock title run at the US Open to seal Stephens' maiden Grand Slam. This year, the 25-year-old has already gone one better in Canada, making the final in Montreal before losing a classic three-setter to Simona Halep on Sunday. After that loss, Stephens was visibly emotional - a rare sight in the laidback American. But ahead of her tournament this week, coach Kamau Murray has described how his charge's calm approach to defeats keeps her stable - and despite the gruelling encounter four days ago, Stephens looked fresh and eager today in overcoming the tactical nous and variety of Maria.
The German, who scored her first ever Top 5 victory two months ago at Wimbledon when she shocked Elina Svitolina in the first round, had the full range of her game on display in demonstrating why she could be a thorn in the side of higher-ranked players. An astonishing point in the second game saw her chase down first an acute forehand angle from Stephens, then hare back across the court to retrieve a dropshot - and, at full stretch, loft a pinpoint lob over her opponent's head. Throughout the match, Maria would move forwards as though magnetized to the net, where her reflexes and touch on the drop volley could put her in command of the point.
But Stephens was equal to the task of dealing with Maria's trickiness, and efficient in controlling the match so that it was mostly played on her own terms. Taking a leaf out of her rival's book, the Miami and US Open champion put pressure on Maria's groundstrokes with judicious net forays of her own, and her own defensive lobs were capable of turning the tables on occasion.
Having broken in the third game with a calm backhand pass, Stephens would remain impenetrable on serve for the rest of the first set, maintaining a 72% first serve percentage and conceding just two points on her own delivery (both on her first serve, in fact). As the German served to stay in the set at 3-5, Stephens raised the pressure on return, catching Maria out with depth and pace, and snatched the set on her first opportunity with a forehand pass.
With her forehand and drive volley firing, the American seemed to be cruising as she broke Maria for a third time to lead 2-0 in the second set. The Mallorca champion had another trick up her sleeve, though - unexpected power.
Having primarily sliced her backhand throughout the match, Maria caught Stephens by surprise with a brilliant driven pass off that wing - and two points later, an inside-out forehand with more pace than she'd hitherto managed. In combination with a couple of Stephens errors off the forehand, and the World No.85 would break back for 2-2 - the first time she had made an impact on her opponent's serve today.
But two double faults in her own subsequent service game did the 31-year-old, whose first serve percentage for the day was just 43%, no favors in terms of consolidating momentum, and Stephens swiftly regained her lead.
This time, she would not let it slip. The Roland Garros finalist came up with a number of highlight reel forehands, racking up a tally of 16 winners as she accelerated towards the finishing line, not least a rocket down the line to bring up her second match point - taken, appropriately, with an inside-out winner off that wing.