BRISBANE, Australia - She shot up the rankings like a rocket last year, and now she's in the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International. Sloane Stephens seems to have picked up right where she left off in 2012 in her first tournament of 2013, and there's a very, very big test coming up next.
Stephens is one of the most promising young stars on the WTA right now: at No.97 she was the youngest player in the year-end Top 100 in 2011; and after a phenomenal sophomore season, at No.38 she was the youngest player and the only teenager in the year-end Top 50 in 2012.
The 19-year-old American has been continuing that momentum in Brisbane this week, starting off with a 62 63 win over Dominika Cibulkova in the first round, and Wednesday a 63 64 win over Sofia Arvidsson.
Not bad for someone who hadn't played since the US Open at the end of the summer.
"I took a really long time off after the US Open, just to get my body right and everything," Stephens said. "It was the ab. I was downplaying it like it's no big deal or whatever, but the day before I played Ivanovic, or maybe the day before that, the muscle started bleeding and getting swollen. My stomach was bulging out on the court and it looked terrible. I couldn't serve, I couldn't do anything. I did well to fight through it and do the best I could there. Sometimes that's just how it is, though.
"It finally healed about seven weeks after the US Open. No physical activity whatsoever. I was just enjoying my life, doing kid things, hoping it would get better, hoping I'd come here and play well.
"I've played two really good matches so far, so hopefully I'll keep it going."
And there lies the very, very big test - Stephens will play Serena Williams.
"I love her," Stephens commented. "Obviously she's been a great influence in my tennis career. I'm excited to play against her and get on the court with her tomorrow. I think it'll be fun.
"But if you go on the court and already think the other person is better than you, you've already lost. You have to just think about what you're going to do, and focus on yourself - even if I go out there and lose doing that, just bomb it and don't win a game, at least I've done what's right for me; it's not a loss."
The other two day session matches on Wednesday both went the distance, starting with No.4 seed Angelique Kerber's marathon 36 64 76(7) win over Puerto Rican qualifier Monica Puig. Kerber rallied from 4-1 down in the third set - as well as 4-1 down in the third set tie-break - to finally prevail.
"I didn't know her before, but I'm sure she's a future player because she hits the ball so deep and so hard, and moves so well," Kerber said of Puig. "I was trying to find my way from the beginning. She started the third set very well - it was 1-4 after five minutes. But I just kept fighting until the last point. And now that I've won a very close match like this, of course I have a lot of confidence.
"I'm sure she'll be coming to the Top 50 very soon."
Puig's first round win over Olivia Rogowska was her first WTA main draw match win, and made her the first Puerto Rican player to win a WTA main draw match since Kristina Brandi back in 2006.
Ukrainian lucky loser Lesia Tsurenko - who replaced No.2 seed Maria Sharapova after the Russian's withdrawal - rallied from a first set blow-out to outlast Australian wildcard Jarmila Gajdosova, 16 61 64.
"I knew what kind of player she is - I was prepared to take some bullets today," Azarenka said. "I just tried to stay focused on executing my game. I knew she was going to make some and that she was going to miss some, so I just had to stay with her and look for my chances, and take them."
Azarenka was asked whether Lisicki's serve is the hardest she has faced, after Serena Williams'. "Probably, yes. But it's not only about fast serves, it's also about the spin and how heavy it comes. Sometimes a player might serve slower but the serve is actually way tougher to return.
"Sabine is definitely a girl with a lot of power."