MIAMI, FL, USA - Three weeks ago, Sloane Stephens halted Victoria Azarenka's comeback from maternity leave in the second round of Indian Wells. Today, the No.13 seed did it again - but via a tougher route, overcoming the wildcard 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 and ending an 11-match Floridian winning streak that stretched back to 2015 for Azarenka.
In Indian Wells, Stephens had triumphed 6-1, 7-5 - but she was taking nothing for granted here. "I knew I was going to have to fight regardless of what happened last week," she stated afterwards. "It's someone I have lost three times before prior to obviously last week. So I had to fight, and I had to play some of my best tennis today."
This time last year, Stephens' foot was in a cast as she recovered from surgery and Azarenka was nursing a three-month old. Both returned to competition during the grass season last year; but while the past nine months have seen the American make a phenomenal Slam-winning comeback, the former World No.1 has been confined to just four events in the same timeframe due to personal issues.
This set the stage for a ferocious first-set contest as each tried to wrest control from the other in a momentum tug of war. Heavily spun groundstrokes were the order of the day: both players' strategy was to pin her opponent behind the baseline by keeping impeccable depth on her rally shots, and both tried to counter this strategy by taking the ball even earlier.
Stephens found the most success, though, when she managed to break out of these patterns in the middle of the set. The 25-year-old won three consecutive games to draw level at 3-3, including an epic 10-minute, five-deuce service hold in the fifth game, with tennis that displayed both her first-strike ability and her retrieval skills.
A banger of a return right into Azarenka's body captured the break back, and two games later Stephens would scamper from side to side to return everything the three-time Miami champion threw at her before nailing the pass.
However, the set would be bookended by dominant play from the World No.186. Azarenka's renowned return, so feared during her time at the top of the game, was on song from the start. She captured nine of the first 11 points on her rival's serve, going on to carve out break points in every Stephens service game - converting in all but one - as the US Open champion found her first serve winning percentage reduced to a mere 29%.
Azarenka would also be successful dictating both from the ground, with her backhand down the line proving particularly potent, and when she managed to move up the court - a swashbuckling overhead sealing a 5-3 lead before Stephens tamely offered up 11th, 12th and 13th unforced errors of the set in the next game.
As Azarenka's form held as sped to eight of the second set's first 10 points and a 2-0 second set lead, the finishing line appeared near. But it was at this point that the cracks began to appear in the Belarusian's game: a third double fault and mistakes from both the baseline and at net conceded the break and sparked new life into Stephens.
"In the second... I was just, like, Okay, well, I didn't really do anything wrong... I wasn't playing terribly," Stephens recalled. "I had a lot of errors, but I didn't feel like I was just not in the match. So I knew if I just kind of stayed with it I would be able to get my opportunities, and I did."
The World No.12, who is guaranteed to break the Top 10 for the first time next week, began to step into the court to hammer her laser forehand - as well as making her own way to the net to put pressure on to Azarenka. The tactics worked: the wildcard's groundstrokes began to go awry as 13 unforced errors piled up across the set, but it was Azarenka's serve which underwent the most alarming collapse. Consecutive double faults put her in danger in the fifth game, and her total would reach six by the end of this set.
"I honestly didn't feel good at all the whole match," admitted Azarenka afterwards. "I felt like I was a little bit too slow. It's just I was fresher in the first set and getting to the ball at the right time. And then I stopped getting to the ball. I stopped hitting the ball the way I should be hitting the ball. You know, she's gonna jump on it. She had great shots."
Rust, she said, was partly a factor. "I need to be more tournament fit, more match fit, and I need to continue to play," stated the 28-year-old.
"Overall, from Indian Wells to Miami I did pretty good improvement. And now I hope I'll be able to play more and continue to work hard, because I really need to play more matches, play more tournaments to be able to figure out the situations like today and turn them around on my side."
Moreover, Azarenka's strategy of relentlessly attacking Stephens' weaker backhand wing had paid off in the first set - but now, the shot was grooved and less prone to breaking down. It was even key to the American getting out of this set's longest game - her break of serve to move ahead for the first time by 3-2, sealed with consecutive winners on the backhand and forehand sides.
With Azarenka's ground game in increasing disarray and Stephens proving more solid on the big points, the Acapulco quarterfinalist would reel off ten consecutive games. Some of those would be quickfire, such as the final game of the second set, Stephens serving it out with another magnificent running pass and a neat backhand volley.
Others would be extended tussles, such as the opening game of the third set - in which Azarenka started brightly, but was gradually pegged back and then defeated by yet another Stephens forehand on the run.
But at every turn, it was Stephens who seemed able to come up with whatever the biggest points required, whether laser aggression as her winner tally reached 24, or impenetrable defence. An increasingly edgy Azarenka was unhappy with the crowd's support for her opponent - but also with her mounting tally of errors with her formerly reliable backhand now sailing long all too frequently.
Towards the conclusion of the match, the two-time major champion was also visibly hampered in the heat; the final two games found both Azarenka's movement and her ability to push off the ground to serve impaired, making for a sad conclusion to what had, at its best, been a fascinating clash.
"I just started feeling... my hip flexor pulling, and I couldn't really bend my legs the right way," said Azarenka following the match.
A 40th unforced error over the baseline after two hours and nine minutes of play would put Stephens into her maiden Miami final, where she will face either No.6 seed Jelena Ostapenko or qualifier Danielle Collins. This marks another extreme oscillation in the American's career: the past 12 months have seen Stephens fall to No.957 in the rankings following her surgery hiatus, rebound after a shock Slam win at the US Open, embark on an eight-match losing streak immediately afterwards - and now crack the Top 10, five years after first reaching No.11 in the world, with a spectacular run to her first Premier Mandatory final.
However, Stephens rejected the idea that her sudden turnarounds in form are to do with anything simply clicking. "No, no switch clicked," she said afterwards. "I just needed some time to get myself together and get myself in a good place and make sure that I was ready to play.
"Going into this season, I knew that I didn't have the greatest off-season, so for me, the two matches that I lost the first part of the year in Australia, not a big deal. Like, if you're not 100%, you can't expect much."
The result also continues Stephens' pattern of thriving on North American soil, where her record is now 23-5 over the past year (17-2 in the USA), compared to 0-9 elsewhere in the world. She also finds herself on the way to turning round a head-to-head against Azarenka in which she had previously been dominated, managing to win just five games in each of their first three meetings - but now pulling the overall standings back to 2-3.
The two-time Australian Open champion, meanwhile, can comfort herself with a spectacular return to the Top 100 just four tournaments into her comeback from maternity leave.