No.17 seed Emma Raducanu triumphed in a rollercoaster clash of US Open champions over Sloane Stephens 6-0, 2-6, 6-1 in 1 hour and 45 minutes to move into the second round of the Australian Open. Earlier, No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka fought from a set and a break down to beat local favourite, wildcard Storm Sanders 5-7, 6-3, 6-2.
Raducanu, who became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam title in New York last year, was playing another major winner for the first time in Stephens, who claimed the US Open crown in 2017. The 19-year-old put her 54-minute defeat in the first round of Sydney last week at the hands of Elena Rybakina firmly behind her to extend her Grand Slam main draw record to 11-1.
No.67-ranked Stephens, who married Jozy Altidore on New Year's Day, was playing her first match of 2022. The 28-year-old American reached her first Grand Slam semifinal at the Australian Open in 2013, but has now lost in the first round in six of her last seven appearances here.
A Melbourne moment to remember ✨— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2022
🇬🇧 @EmmaRaducanu opens her account at the #AusOpen with a first round victory over Sloane Stephens, 6-0 2-6 6-1.
🎥: @wwos • @espn • @Eurosport • @wowowtennis #AO2022 pic.twitter.com/UeUbmdRy18
Match management: Raducanu came roaring out of the blocks with her Flushing Meadows form on full display. The first set was spectacularly one-sided: the Briton took just 17 minutes to win it and dropped only four points, one of which was a double fault. She struck seven winners to Stephens' zero, and committed two unforced errors to her opponent's eight.
The first sign of resistance from Stephens came in the opening game of the second set, during which she won over double the number of points she had in the first set and which, at 12 minutes, lasted nearly as long. Attacking the Raducanu second serve and moving with more energy, Stephens sealed the break thanks to consecutive double faults from the teenager - but in terms of competition, that game set the tone for the rest of the match.
Stephens had struggled to read Raducanu's patterns of play in the first set, but managed to extend rallies to superb effect in the second. Several of those exchanges were particularly absorbing in terms of the tactical battle, as both players sought to remain one step ahead of the other with their changes of direction and pace. As the set drew on, Stephens was the more likely to come out on top, drawing 19 unforced errors from Raducanu and levelling the match with a forehand winner, her ninth of the day.
In the decider, it was Raducanu's turn to adjust, and she did so superbly. If Stephens had countered her first-strike tennis with canny defence, Raducanu's response was to play with patience and placement. The Melbourne debutante's point construction was exquisite, from the low balls that repeatedly outdid Stephens at net to the well-timed changes of direction down the line. Punishing the Stephens second serve also paid dividends, with two booming backhand returns sealing the double break for 4-0.
Seeking a second bagel set of the day at 5-0, Raducanu set up two passing shots perfectly, only to miss the finishing touch. But she would serve out the win with little trouble, ending a 17-shot rally with a flicked crosscourt dropshot on her third match point.
In Raducanu's words: "I went out there and I played a great first set," she said afterwards. "I executed my game plan pretty well and was making very little unforced errors, but of course because Sloane is a great champion, she was fighting back in the second set.
"Her defensive skills were pretty inspiring, actually, for me to try and replicate myself later on. So we got into some long rallies. She turned it around. Then in the third set I'm just glad I could regroup and make less errors again and play some good tennis.
"Some of those shots she was getting to I couldn't believe, like her squash shot, her forehand on the run, I couldn't believe the ball kept coming back. I definitely think that I want to learn from that, and it's tough, because it's a bit deceiving. You don't think she's at the ball, but then she comes back and the ball is coming back with an even better angle on it."
What's next for Raducanu: A second-round tilt against Montenegro's Danka Kovinic, last year's Charleston 500 runner-up and the World No.98. Kovinic overcame South Korean qualifier Jang Su Jeong 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in 3 hours and 9 minutes, the longest main-draw match of the year so far.
The result puts Kovinic, 27, into the second round of a major for the seventh time. She has yet to progress to the third round.
Sabalenka fights back against Sanders, works on serve with Philippoussis
Sabalenka had also entered the Australian Open with alarm bells ringing around her form. The Belarusian had lost her opening matches in both Adelaide tournaments this month (to Kaja Juvan and Rebecca Peterson respectively), but more worryingly had racked up 74 double faults in her previous four matches. Against Peterson, Sabalenka had even resorted to underarm deliveries.
Twelve more double faults against Sanders, who held a point to take a 7-5, 4-1 double-break lead, nearly undid Sabalenka again. But she managed to regain control in the nick of time on Rod Laver Arena, showing real fortitude to clean up her game and advance in 2 hour and 2 minutes.
Turning point: Seven of Sabalenka's double faults came in the first half of the match as she fell behind 7-5, 3-1, and they came in ill-timed bunches. Four were in her first two service games - and just when she had cleaned them up enough to level the set at 5-5 from a double break down, another two handed Sanders another break. Two more paved the way to losing her serve in the third game of the second set.
In addition, Sabalenka's errant serve had a knock-on effect to the rest of her game. Routine groundstrokes proved just as problematic to put in the court, and she racked up 37 unforced errors in total.
But Sabalenka found a service winner to avoid falling 4-1 behind, and another two to grit out a hold for 3-2. That jumpstarted a breathtaking spell of nine consecutive games in which the 23-year-old harnessed her power to overwhelm Sanders and take a 4-0 lead in the decider. Her remaining five double faults were only intermittent, and replaced in the main by an ace tally that reached seven. The last two of those came en route to an emphatic service hold to finish off the win.
The Philippoussis connection: Afterwards, Sabalenka revealed that she had been aided in her efforts to fix her service issues by another Australian - former ATP World No.8 Mark Philippoussis.
Sabalenka has been in touch with the two-time Grand Slam finalist ever since asking him to help with her serve at Wimbledon a few years ago. After her match against Peterson, he got back in touch.
"He was in Adelaide and after my second match he just wrote me,'Well, girl, just stop thinking a lot on your serve,'" she told the press. "I was leaving on the next day, and he said, 'If you have some time today after my last [commentating] match, we can go out on the court, I can help you anyhow.'
"And I think at 8pm or 9pm we went on court and we served a lot, and he gave me some tips about what should I focus on during the game when I'm struggling with my serve. And my coach was there. They had a nice conversation. We had nice conversation. I'm really thankful to him for this help because that's what helped me today [in the] match to just survive there."
Sanders shows potential: While Sabalenka's gamestyle and oscillating form could have made the match all about her, No.128-ranked Sanders managed to stamp her own authority on passages of play at the start of the first and second sets.
Buoyed by her home crowd, the Australian made a scintillating start, striking four clean return winners en route to a 4-1 first-set lead. Another pair of brilliant returns took her to the brink of 4-1 in the second set.
Sanders, who showed promise as a teenager despite battling a host of injuries, was eventually diagnosed with the auto-immune condition ankylosing spondylitis. When she returned, she initially thought that it would restrict her career to doubles only. But in late 2019 she resumed playing singles, and last year she reached quarterfinals in Adelaide and Prague before scoring her first Top 20 win over Elise Mertens in Billie Jean King Cup Finals action.
A three-time WTA doubles titlist and the current doubles World No.27, Sanders showed off some volleying excellence as well, winning nine of 13 points at net. But the 27-year-old can also now anticipate a singles breakthrough to go with those achievements.
What's next for Sabalenka: A second-round clash with No.100-ranked Wang Xinyu of China, who defeated Ann Li of the United States 7-6(5), 6-3 in 1 hour and 36 minutes. The big-hitting 20-year-old was the 2018 girls' doubles champion in Melbourne alongside Liang En-Shuo, and enjoyed a Top 100 breakthrough in 2021 after reaching the semifinals in Prague and quarterfinals in Courmayeur and Linz.
Wang recovered after failing to serve out the first set, missing a set point in the process, to win it on a tiebreak. She struck 18 winners en route to her first Grand Slam main draw win at the fifth attempt.
Kanepi continues giant-killing ways with upset of Kerber
Former World No.15 Kaia Kanepi is renowned as a slayer of seeds, particularly at Slams, and at 36 years old is still going strong in that regard. The Estonian came from a break down in the second set to take out 2016 champion and No.16 seed Angelique Kerber 6-4, 6-3 in 1 hour and 20 minutes.
The result was the ninth time Kanepi has beaten a seed in the first round of a major, and her 14th defeat of a seed across the first two rounds. Her first Grand Slam upset of a seed was over Flavia Pennetta in the first round of the 2007 Australian Open, and at Roland Garros 2008 she scored her first Top 10 win at a major over Anna Chakvetadze. Kerber was previously a Kanepi victim in the second round of Wimbledon 2013.
This week had seen Kanepi fall out of the Top 100 to No.115, but this did not dim her ability to club 31 winners to 21 unforced errors across the match. Kerber, whose preparation for the Australian Open was hampered after she tested positive for Covid-19, showed flashes of valiant defence, particularly in attempting to seize momentum in the second set.
But the German former World No.1 lacked her usual sharpness on big points and committed 19 unforced errors to 18 winners. Kanepi now leads their overall head-to-head 3-2, and plays Marie Bouzkova next.
Kerber's loss means that a brand new Australian Open quarterfinalist is now guaranteed. In the final 16th of the draw, only Sabalenka, Kanepi and Marketa Vondrousova have reached the last eight of a major before, and none have previously done so in Melbourne.
Zidansek, Konjuh hold off comebacks from Rus, Rogers
No.29 seed Tamara Zidansek and former World No.20 Ana Konjuh were born just a day apart, and the two leading lights of Generation 1997 scored almost identical victories to reach the second round.
Zidansek needed a super-tiebreak to get past Arantxa Rus 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 in 2 hours and 26 minutes, while Konjuh squeezed past Shelby Rogers 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in 2 hours and 18 minutes.
In both matches, the younger player came from a set down to take control, but made heavy weather of closing out the win. Roland Garros semifinalist Zidansek missed triple match point serving at 5-4 in the third set, and after leading 5-0 in the super-tiebreak lost seven of the next eight points to trail 6-7. However, the Slovenian found some of her best forehands to stay aggressive and convert her fourth match point.
Konjuh, a 2016 US Open quarterfinalist, could not take four match points serving at 5-4 in the decider. But after losing that tussle, the Croat simply found another level, rattling off the last eight points to seal her first Grand Slam main draw win since Wimbledon 2017.
Elsewhere, 19-year-old Clara Tauson enjoyed a winning Australian Open main draw debut, defeating home hope Astra Sharma 6-3, 6-4 in 1 hour and 20 minutes; and 2019 semifinalist Danielle Collins, the No.27 seed, triumphed 6-1, 6-3 in an all-American derby against qualifier Caroline Dolehide in 66 minutes.
Collins will next face Konjuh, Tauson will take on No.6 seed Anett Kontaveit and Zidansek has a rematch against Heather Watson, whom she defeated 2-6, 6-2, 7-6(4) in the first round of last week's Adelaide 250.