MELBOURNE, Australia - The unseeded Zhang Shuai inflicted a severe case of déjà vu on No.24 seed Sloane Stephens, coming from a set and a break down and striking 41 winners to win their first-round Australian Open clash 2-6, 7-5, 6-2 in two hours and two minutes.
The pair had met in Melbourne at exactly the same stage in 2018, with Zhang triumphing 2-6, 7-6(2), 6-2 - a result that extended Stephens' losing streak after capturing the 2017 US Open title to eight. Two years later, the Chinese No.2, fresh off reaching the Hobart final last week, reprised almost exactly the same scoreline to extend the American's current losing streak to four, including first-round losses at the hands of two opponents ranked outside the Top 100, Liudmila Samsonova in Brisbane and Arina Rodionova in Adelaide. In both matches, Stephens served for the win against Zhang, who will turn 31 tomorrow and who was serenaded by the crowd singing "Happy Birthday" afterwards.
Initially, though, Stephens seemed to have overturned that recent form. The 26-year-old was rock-solid in the first set, balancing offence with defence perfectly and giving away only four unforced errors to Zhang's 13 as she controlled the baseline with heavy, deep topspin before injecting pace to finish points. But Stephens would also instinctively raise her game when she needed to, while Zhang's intermittently brilliant ballstriking would rarely come to bear on the biggest points.
Having fallen behind a double break, the Chinese player would battle to getting one of them back - only for Stephens to conjure up a pair of brilliant flicked backhand passes to rebreak for 5-2. Then, with her back to the wall, Zhang would power her way to saving three consecutive set points - only for Stephens to match her and seal the opening act with two fierce forehand winners of her own.
For much of the second set, although Zhang would significantly raise her level, the same pattern held true. Time and again, the World No.35 would come from behind to embroil Stephens in deuce tussles - but the 2018 Roland Garros runner-up would emerge unscathed on serve every time, coming up with a brace of backhands down the line as she saved two break points in the second game and withstanding a barrage of power from Zhang to hold for 4-4 with an exquisite lob. When Zhang lapsed once again into error in the next game to concede her own serve, it seemed as though Stephens' strategy had paid off.
But the 30-year-old refused to back down. Instead, she took her game to new heights: as Stephens served for the match, Zhang smacked three glorious winners to stay alive - and kept on the front foot for the rest of the set as the former World No.3 's hitherto impregnable defence began to miss the mark. The two-time Guangzhou champion, who posted a much-improved ratio of 19 winners to 16 unforced errors in the second act, would eventually force a decider on a dead net cord that sent her return dribbling into an unimpressed Stephens' court.
This would set the stage for a phenomenal purple patch from Zhang. Striking winners for fun from every corner of the court against a suddenly flat-footed Stephens, the 2016 quarterfinalist was a walking highlights reel as she rattled off 17 of the first 18 points of the deciding set - including 16 in a row - repeatedly pulling off high-risk, crowd-pleasing down-the-line stunners.
Facing a point to fall behind 0-5, Stephens belatedly roused herself. Beckoned back into the match after a couple of careless Zhang errors, the 2013 semifinalist found some energy to essay some remarkable defensive winners of her own, retrieving one of the breaks. But it was too little, too late: Zhang, sensing danger, kept her focus to race through the final eight points of the match, pummeling a succession of returns at Stephens' feet to draw the errors in the final game.