MADRID, Spain -- No.8 seed Sloane Stephens of the United States notched an opening-round win at the Mutua Madrid Open on Sunday, easing past dangerous Slovenian qualifier Polona Hercog, 6-2, 7-6(4).
Hercog had recently won her first WTA singles title since 2012 on the clay courts of Lugano, but Stephens stayed solid throughout their encounter, clinching victory after one hour and 44 minutes of play. The American extended her head-to-head record against Hercog to 3-0 (6-0 in sets).
The win by Stephens moves her into an intriguing second-round tilt against former World No.1 Victoria Azarenka, who eliminated Daria Kasatkina on Saturday. They have split their six meetings, with Azarenka winning three in a row at the Australian Open between 2013 and 2015, and Stephens countering with three wins last year at big hardcourt events in Indian Wells, Miami, and the US Open.
In the opening frame, Stephens successfully fended off two break points at 1-1, and after grasping the service hold, ran with it, breaking Hercog for a 3-1 lead. Stephens faced no more break points in the set as she maneuvered to a 5-2 advantage.
Hercog was unable to make a dent in the first set, and Stephens quickly obtained match point as the Slovene served to prolong the opening stanza. At that juncture, Hercog double faulted to cede the one-set lead to the American.
The second set was much more competitive, as Hercog was twice up a break at 2-1 and 4-3, attaining the second break after a grueling game where she converted her fifth break point. But on both occasions, Stephens broke back immediately, as her impenetrable defense drew errors from the racquet of Hercog.
Stephens was forced into a tense deuce game at 5-5, but held her serve via clutch volleying, including a pinpoint backhand volley to close out the game. But Hercog continued to challenge, queuing up a second-set tiebreak after a love hold for 6-6.
It was the American who started the tiebreak on fire while Hercog fired errors, and Stephens won six points in a row to reach 6-1 and quintuple match point. But errors crept into the Stephens game and Hercog’s groundstrokes became more precise, and the Slovene pulled to 6-4.
However, Hercog was unable to fully extricate herself from her dire predicament, and a final unforced error into the net by the qualifier concluded the match, sending the eighth-seeded American into the second round of the Premier Mandatory event.
More to follow....