MELBOURNE, Australia - No.5 seed Sloane Stephens is through to the third round of the Australian Open, needing almost an hour and 40 minutes to claim a hard-fought victory against a determined Timea Babos.
After breaking her streak of disappointing trips to Melbourne in the last round, winning her first-round match here for the first time since 2014, Stephens continued her Australian Open run against Babos, winning 6-3, 6-1 to advance.
“It was not an easy match,” Stephens told press after the match. “It’s pretty hard to play against a player who serves so well, so I’m pretty happy.
“Considering that I hadn’t won a match here in a long time, it’s great. I’m kind of conquering all the places where I’ve played terrible - Asia, here. I played well in my first round and today, so I’m pretty happy with that.”
The pair have only met at the WTA level once before, back in 2012 at Strasbourg where Stephens won in three sets, but they go back even further: in 2010, Stephens and Babos partnered together as juniors to win the girls titles at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open.
“We were friends when we played juniors and we practiced a lot together,” Stephens explained.
Their familiarity was evident in their high-intensity battle in Melbourne, with Stephens firing 15 winners against Babos’ 13 en route to the straight sets win. She kept her unforced error count tidy as well, with 21 to her name, while Babos ended the match with more than double that figure (44) - which proved to be her undoing.
The pair created break points in seven of the nine games of the nearly one-hour opening set, a total of 14 between the two players. Stephens and Babos proved evenly matched throughout, and holding serve proved a difficult challenge against the other’s relentless attacking.
Stephens drew first blood at 3-1, breaking first to get ahead - but the lead was short-lived as Babos dragged them back level a game later.
But Stephens continued to apply the pressure to her opponent, and Babos’ vulnerable forehand started to break down towards the end of the set. A handful of loose forehand errors gave Stephens another look at break point, and this time the American was seamless to claim the decisive break at 5-3.
Still, Babos didn’t make it easy for her. Stephens needed six set points to serve out the set a game later, with Babos staying within touching distance and looking for any opportunity to break back.
Stephens made a solid start to the second set, gritting her way to a tough break and consolidating to set up a 2-0 lead.
Despite having a break to the good, Stephens’ frustration grew as she found herself unable to capitalize on her subsequent seven chances across Babos’ next two service games, the Hungarian showing nerves of steel to keep herself in the contest.
Stephens finally earned the double break at 4-1, Babos starting to show signs of fatigue as Stephens outlasted her in a marathon break point. That seemed to finally take the wind out of Babos’ sails, and Stephens quickly wrapped up the encounter to charge into the Australian Open third round.
Stephens will take on No.31 seed Petra Martic in her next match. Martic edged past Marketa Vondrousova 6-4, 7-5 earlier in the day to reach the third round.
“I’ve never played her before, I don’t think,” Stephens said. “I practiced with her before, in Rome last year.
“She’s a good player, she’s solid. I’ve seen her play before - I think her serve is big. I hope it’ll be a good match, the first two matches I’ve played here was against players who had big serves as well. I’ll just try to get through it and execute a good game plan.”