From a set and a break down, Sloane Stephens opened her 10th career trip to the BNP Paribas Open with a comeback victory.
Trailing Heather Watson, 7-6(5), 1-0, Stephens avoided an opening exit at the WTA 1000 event for the first time in her career with a 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-1 victory. From 5-5 in the second set, Stephens won seven games in a row before eventually serving out the 2-hour, 51-minute win.
Not only returning to the site of her WTA main-draw debut 11 years on, Stephens also earned a milestone win against an opponent who's historically troubled her. Though they were playing for the first time in five years, the American beat Watson for just the third time in eight career meetings, and for the first time on hard courts.
"Playing Heather is always a tough match. We grew up playing juniors together, and we're really good friends," Stephens said. "Before the tournament, we were talking in the parking lot for an hour about everything, and how we've been friends for so long and how we're able to separate the match and still be friends. Then we ended up playing each other in the first round, so that was unfortunate.
"She's always a super-tough opponent and I always look forward to playing her. I just competed really well. After the first set, that was disappointing to lose that one, but I felt like it was a battle and I was still in the match. I knew I had to keep fighting and that's what I did, and I'm just really pleased to have squeaked out a win here."
Up next: It'll be an all-American match in the second round as Stephens advances to face No. 19 seed Jessica Pegula. They'll represent the U.S. at next month's Billie Jean Cup Finals, but first up, they'll face off for the first time on the pro tour for a spot in the third round.
Putintseva, Samsonova among other early winners
Though each was pushed to a first-set tiebreak, 2021 title-winners Yulia Putintseva and Liudmilla Samsonova also secured first-round wins. Fresh off a runner-up finish last week at the inaugural Astana Open, Budapest champion Putintseva earned a 7-6(2), 6-1 win over Andrea Petkovic, while Berlin champion Samsonova ousted Ukrainian qualifier Kateryna Kozlova 6-4, 7-6(6).
The first main-draw victor of the tournament, Putintseva was a break up three times against Petkovic in the first set before eventually wrapping it up in a tiebreak. After failing to serve it out at 6-5, the Kazakh won the first four, and the past three, points of the breaker before cruising in the second set.
The two were facing off for a sixth time overall and second time on hard courts, having played for the first time at the BNP Paribas Open eight years ago, and Putintseva advances to face compatriot and No. 13 seed Elena Rybakina in the next round.
A break down in both sets, Samsonova dug deep to secure a victory in her tournament debut. The Russian won three straight games to take the opener, and saved a set point with Kozlova serving at 5-4 in the second set after seeing her own 4-2 lead slip away.
After leading 3-0 in the tiebreak, Samsonova eventually needed three match points to put Kozlova away and secure another meeting between compatriots: a date with No. 25 seed Veronika Kudermetova.
Cornet sets date with Fernandez, Martic to face Swiatek
Leylah Fernandez's first match since reaching the US Open final, and first at the BNP Paribas Open, will come against French veteran Alizé Cornet, while Iga Swiatek will make her own tournament main-draw debut against Petra Martic.