MADRID, Spain - No.8 seed Sloane Stephens is through to the quarterfinals at the Mutua Madrid Open for the first time after battling back from a set down against Zheng Saisai.
Last year’s Roland Garros finalist, Stephens is competing in her first event with new coach Sven Groenefeld. Earlier in the season, Stephens posted a quarterfinal finish in Charleston - a green clay event - and backed it up with a pair of vital singles wins in Fed Cup.
She’s carried all of that momentum with her in Madrid, and she booked her third-round spot after a grueling battle against former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka, needing over two hours to win, 6-4,2-6,6-2.
Stephens had another tough three-setter on her hands against Zheng at the Caja Magica, especially after the Chinese player powered ahead to take the opening set. But Stephens rallied back, raising her level through the second and third sets to win 3-6, 6-3, 6-2.
“I thought she played very well today,” Stephens said after the match. “It was a little tricky because it was super windy, it was cold, the conditions today were different from the other matches I’ve played.
“Everything was a bit different, so I just had to reset - and I think I did that well, especially in the second and third set.”
Up against Stephens, Zheng came to Madrid straight from China, where she had won the biggest title of her career at the 125K event in Anning just last week. She had to make a quick turnaround to adjust to the conditions in the Spanish capital, and was locked into two marathon battles on her way to the third round: she needed almost two and a half hours to see off Wang Yafan in her first match, and then had to fight past Alize Cornet in three lengthy sets to advance.
If there was any lingering fatigue from her rollercoaster week and a half, Zheng showed no signs of it when she took the court against Stephens. After a tentative start, Zheng raised her level to earn the first break at 3-1, edging ahead after a hard-fought four-minute game to convert her sixth break opportunity.
Losing serve after putting up such a battle seemed to frustrate Stephens, and Zheng quickly reeled off two more games in a row to extend her lead to 5-1. Zheng didn’t give her opponent anything to work with, and was counterpunching perfectly as she forced Stephens into making the errors. The American managed to recover one of the breaks and cut heng’s lead down to 5-3, but Zheng was undaunted and served out the set with confidence.
Stephens seemed to jolt to life after dropping the first set, and the American responded like a Grand Slam champion to turn around the match after that. Stephens applied the pressure on Zheng’s serve, and was rewarded with a break at 3-1 after a marathon game, with the American needing five break chances to convert. She backed it up in style a game later, surviving four of Zheng’s break opportunities to hold. Stephens held firm even as Zheng tried to spark a comeback - earning a break at 4-3 - slamming the door shut and taking the second set 6-3.
It was one-way traffic in the deciding set as well as Stephens continued her momentum, moving Zheng around the court and firing winners past her. A break at 1-0 and another at 4-1 were all Stephens needed to seal the victory, and put an end to their battle after just over two hours on court.
“I’ve never been to the quarterfinal here in, like, eight tries, so that’s pretty good!” Stephens joked afterward. “I’m happy with that. I feel like my season kind of started at Fed Cup [in April].
“I’m happy to be playing, happy to be competing well, winning some matches in the early part of the clay season before the French.”
Into the quarterfinals here for the first time, Stephens will face the always-dangerous Petra Martic, an unseeded player. Martic moved past an ailing Donna Vekic to advance through the all-Croatian battle, with Vekic retiring in the third set, 4-6, 6-3, 3-0.