NEW YORK, NY, USA -- Defending champion Sloane Stephens of the United States came through a hotly anticipated third-round encounter at the 2018 US Open on Friday, easing past 2012 and 2013 finalist Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, 6-3, 6-4, in one hour and 46 minutes.
"Very happy to be through," Stephens said, during her post-match press conference. "Obviously, a little rocky in the second set. I started off well and I played a solid match, so I was happy with that. The fight was good throughout."
No.3 seed Stephens had lost her first three meetings with Azarenka -- all of which took place at the Australian Open, each year between 2013 and 2015 -- but has completely leveled their head-to-head this year by having the former World No.1's number on hardcourts in 2018, adding this win to her springtime victories over the Belarusian at Indian Wells and Miami.
"I think the first couple times I played [Azarenka], I was just like the young gun, just happy to be on the court with someone who's ranked No. 1 in the world and had won a Grand Slam already," said Stephens.
"Now I'm in a position where I fully believe I can win the match, and I go out there ready to execute and ready to play," Stephens added. "I think that kind of changes the dynamic of the match."
Stephens played a clinical match throughout, with 20 winners outpacing 17 unforced errors, and claiming just about half of the points on Azarenka's service. Two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka had 21 winners, but her 27 unforced errors caused her undoing as she lost both close sets.
"I thought that there were some points that were very crucial, like in the second [set]," Stephens admitted. "When you win or lose those points, sometimes that's how the matches go."
Stephens will now face No.15 seed Elise Mertens in the fourth round, after the Belgian moved past No.23 seed Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic earlier on Friday. Mertens picked up a win over Stephens in their first-ever meeting two weeks ago at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati.
"I actually didn't play bad," Stephens said, regarding her prior match against Mertens, "but when you don't execute well, mentally, I was tired, I was fried."
"I'll just go out and do my best and execute, try to execute the game plan my coach gives me and see what happens," Stephens continued. "She's a good player, so anything can happen."
Azarenka had to fend off a break point in the very first game of the match with a forehand winner, before holding for 1-0. But she was not as lucky in her next service game -- Stephens blasted a barrage of forehands to queue up break point, which Azarenka tossed away with a double fault, giving the defending champion a crucial 2-1 lead.
Stephens continued to use the forehand to take command of the set, easily holding for 3-1 via a winner off of that wing down the line, and surviving a break point to maintain a lead at 4-2. But Azarenka stayed within touching distance through the midpoint of the set, slamming an ace to hold for 4-3.
However, Azarenka found herself in dire straits on her serve at 5-3, firing three consecutive forehand errors to find herself down triple break point, which was also triple set point. Azarenka could not claim her mojo on that shot in time, slamming a fourth straight miscue off that wing to get broken at love, handing Stephens the one-set lead.
Stephens claimed the first break of the second set as well, garnering a 3-1 lead after Azarenka shot a backhand wide while down break point. But Azarenka was hardly done yet, as the two-time Grand Slam champion broke back straight away, reaching 3-2 after Stephens hit an unexpected double fault down break point.
Azarenka then showed off her steely demeanor by saving three break points in a row in the next game, the final one with a volley that barely clipped the sideline. Stephens slammed a forehand winner for a fourth chance, but Azarenka saved that one as well, eventually holding for 3-3.
Stephens faltered again in her next service game, allowing Azarenka to hold three break points during the protracted game, and the Belarusian converted the third one after a deep backhand forced Stephens into a netted groundstroke error.
But then a brief sprinkle caused the roof at Arthur Ashe Stadium to close for the remainder of the match, and after the break, Stephens took command. The American broke back for 4-4, then saved a break point en route to a hold for a 5-4 lead over the increasingly error-prone Azarenka.
Azarenka could not regain the momentum in her next service game, as her errors continued to mount. Stephens swiftly reached double match point, where the defending champion crushed a passing shot off a dropshot for a winner to close out the victory and enter the second week.