LONDON, UK - No.9 seed Sloane Stephens made a fine start to her Wimbledon 2019 campaign, posting her first grass-court win since 2016 with a 6-1, 6-4 defeat of Timea Bacsinszky in one hour and eight minutes.
The American, who suffered first-round losses in SW19 in 2017 to Alison Riske and in 2018 to Donna Vekic, showed off some net-focused grass-court tactics, moving up the court at every opportunity and proving particularly secure on the smash to win 18 points in the forecourt. Indeed, Stephens' only flaw was in closing out, dropping serve to love with poor games when attempting to seal both sets.
Afterwards, Stephens was satisfied with her performance. "I thought I played a good match," she told the press. "Obviously playing Timea is always really tricky because she plays a lot of slices and it's the kind of stuff that works well on the grass... I just stuck with the game plan. I thought I played well from start to finish. A little bumpy at the end. Obviously not much you can do when someone plays with such variety."
Nonetheless, the former World No.3 maintained her unbeaten record against Bacsinszky, having also defeated the Swiss player in Luxembourg in 2013 and in a Fed Cup first-round tie this February.
Stephens took a game to fully settle, needing to fend off two break points off the bat - but once the 2013 quarterfinalist had passed this test, she moved through the gears in impressive fashion.
Constructing points smartly and moving up the court with intent, the 26-year-old broke Bacsinszky twice, once with a flashing inside-in forehand winner and again by punishing an overly safe second serve.
Bacsinszky - whose comeback from hand surgery last year saw her rocket from World No.745 to World No.112 in five months between August 2018 and January 2019 - has stalled somewhat of late, with this defeat coming on the heels of qualifying losses at Roland Garros and Eastbourne to Kurumi Nara and Viktorija Golubic respectively. The two-time Roland Garros semifinalist was unable to find a consistent rhythm either on her trademark touch shots or her rally balls, at one point losing 15 out of 16 points midway through the first set and ultimately talling 15 unforced errors to only four winners.
Neither was the former World No.9 able to take advantage of a glimmer of hope when Stephens failed to serve out the set: Bacsinszky, leaking errors off her backhand, immediately fell behind in the next game, and Stephens resumed her sharp forecourt form to seal the set with an elegant backhand volley.
On the challenges posed by grass-court tennis, Stephens said that the key was mental. "Grass is definitely a neutralizer, even more than clay," she asserted. "You don't have to be a great mover. You don't have to do a lot of amazing things, but be a good striker of the ball. I think people with a lot of variations in their game, a lot of slices, the court really plays to them. I think you need to be ready and be able to face any type of adversity when you're playing on grass because a lot of different things can happen, you can slip and fall. I think to be able to just really focus and focus on what's in front of you on grass is really important."
With her back to the wall, Bacsinszky began to throw the kitchen sink at the match - to little avail. The 2015 quarterfinalist was unable to disrupt Stephens' rhythm, no matter how much slice or sidespin she loaded on her shots, while her dropshots ended up either sitting up with plenty of time for Stephens to reach or limping into the net - as per the attempt that caused her to drop serve to fall behind 1-3.
Though Bacsinszky battled hard to remain in touch with the Madrid semifinalist, she was once again unable to take advantage of a surprise lifeline at the business end of the set when Stephens could not close the match out on serve. The World No.91 had a point to level the score at 5-5, but went wide with a forehand.
Stephens needed little encouragement to resume control, setting up match point by capturing a brilliant 22-stroke rally with another sharp volley putaway - her 25th winner - before Bacsinszky's 15th unforced error of the day sealed the win. Next up in the second round for Stephens will be either Wang Yafan or qualifier Tereza Martincova.
After today's match, Stephens also opened up on the model of finding major success following a long hiatus - as she had following a 10-month injury break in 2017, and as World No.l Ashleigh Barty is now having. "I think we'll start to see [breaks] more just because the season is so incredibly long and there's so much travel," she said. "I think for a lot of girls, family is very important. Being home and being with your loved ones, being able to feel that sense of comfort, but knowing you also have to go to work every day. Work isn't down the street; work is in another country, it may be six thousand miles away. To be able to play longer, you have to have some type of break in there.
"Every person is different, because some players, maybe they don't want to go home. For them, playing every week, that's good for them. But like I said, it just depends. For top players to play longer and have longer careers, I'd say breaks are pretty beneficial."
Stephens also discussed how accepting natural ups and downs keeps her focus on the bigger picture. "I just feel like whether I'm happy, I'm playing well, I just want to go out there and compete, I'm good to go," she said. "Obviously life happens, things happen. It's just not going to be perfect every day. You could have a perfect first four months of the year, but then you got to play six more. I think it's not always just going to be amazing." Nonetheless, as Stephens put it, she feels free "more often than not" - a balance she will strive to maintain over the coming fortnight.