BEIJING, China - Former World No.3 Sloane Stephens broke her Asian Swing hex at the China Open on Sunday, recovering from a one-set deficit to defeat Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 6-7(8), 6-4, 6-4.
"I'm super happy to be through," Stephens said after the match. "It was a tough match against a tough opponent."
The American's last win in Asia came all the way back in 2015 at this tournament over Karolina Pliskova. After back-to-back opening round exits at the Toray Pan Pacific Open and Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open this season, Stephens was made to fight for nearly three hours on the National Tennis Stadium before emerging victorious after two hours and 53 minutes.
"It was quite devestating," she said of losing the first set. "It was good to be able to fight back, keep playing, and keep myself going."
Where Stephens fell to eventual runner-up Anett Kontaveit in Wuhan, Pavlyuchenkova was fresh off a run to the quarterfinals of the final Premier 5 event of 2018, and took a 4-2 lead to start the match.
"The conditions don't change that often in back-to-back tournaments. It's super cold here, but during the day it's nice. It's kind of strange, but everyone has the same conditions."
Runner-up at Roland Garros earlier in the spring, the American rallied to hold three set points at 5-4 and 6-5, only for the Russian to force a dramatic tie-break, where she held five straight set points of her own from 6-1.
Stephens roared back again to hold a fourth set point, but couldn't seal the deal as Pavlyuchenkova ultimately took th set on her seventh chance.
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The two exchanged breaks early in the second, with the key game coming when the Russian held a break point for 3-1. Stephens saved it and rolled to a 5-2 lead as Pavlyuchenkova began to struggle with a shoulder injury, calling the trainer.
While the Russian closed the gap to one break, Stephens leveled the match on her second opportunity to serve it out and third set point.
Falling behind a double break lead to start the decider, Pavlyuchenkova narrowed the deficit once more, forcing Stephens to hold on for dear life as the contest inched towards the three-hour mark.
Stephens took a 40-0 lead at 5-4, needing all three match points to secure her spot in the second round.
In all, the Miami Open champion struck an impressive 39 winners to cancel out 38 unforced errors, while Pavlyuchenkova hit three fewer winners but 10 more unforced errors throughout - even as she finished with one more point (123 to 122).
Up next for the American is hometown favorite Zheng Saisai, who knocked out Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska earlier in the day.
"It's one at a time right now," she said when asked about a potential BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global debut. "It's too stressful to think about, so I'll just take one match at a time, and see what happens."