MELBOURNE, Australia - No.13 seed Sloane Stephens was the first seed to tumble at the Australian Open after falling to Zhang Shuai in three sets in Melbourne.
The reigning US Open champion made a strong start in the first set before the tenacious Zhang came roaring back, needing just two hours to seal the 2-6, 7-6(2), 6-2 turnaround victory.
“[Margaret Court Arena] is really special for me,” Zhang said in her on-court interview. “When I came back here to warm up I was feeling so excited.
“So I think I was ready today…. I always play against great players on this court. I was very happy to play against Sloane.”
Both players have a special history at the Australian Open, having both made their first Grand Slam breakthroughs here in Melbourne. Stephens burst onto the scene in 2013, living up to her promise and knocking out Simona Halep in the first round and then-World No.3 Serena Williams in the quarterfinals before falling to World No.1 and eventual champion Victoria Azarenka, while in 2016 Zhang tore through the draw as a qualifier, knocking out Halep and Madison Keys on her way to the quarterfinals.
While Zhang returns to Melbourne building on a stellar end of 2017 that saw her claim titles at Guangzhou and Honolulu 125K, Stephens was looking to snap a pair of dismal losing streaks: not only has the American not won a match since her US Open triumph in September 2017, but she hasn’t won a match at the Australian Open since 2014 after posting back-to-back first-round exists before missing all of last year’s Australian swing due to foot surgery.
Zhang denied her the victory after a tenacious performance saw her come back from the brink, having lost the opening set pretty one-sidedly to the American. Stephens emerged with the edge after a spate of three straight breaks of serve started the match. She stepped into the court and played aggressively to barrage winners past Zhang, who was outplayed for most of the opening set.
But Zhang recovered admirably in the second, rocketing ahead to an early break and building up a 3-0 lead. She saw her lead vanish, however as Stephens took advantage of Zhang’s multiplying unforced errors, keeping her under pressure.
After another five breaks of serve - including one right as Stephens served for the match - they were level again, and marched into the tiebreak. But the American couldn’t get the job done once again as Zhang roared ahead, allowing her just two points as she sent the match into a deciding set.
It all went Zhang’s way from there, with Sloane going on to win just two games as the Chinese player broke twice more and closed out her first victory of the Grand Slam season.
“I wouldn't call them tough times,” Stephens said of her four-month losing streak. “Everyone is so depressed and so down. It happens to everyone. I'm going to beat someone eventually. I will have the best Instagram picture when I finally snap this losing streak.
“It's just a learning experience. You know, it's a long journey. This year, it's a new year, only the second tournament of the year. It's a long road and long season ahead.”
Zhang will take on the winner between either Pauline Parmentier or No.18 seed Denisa Allertova in the second round.