SYDNEY, Australia - No.4 seed Sloane Stephens was twice two points away from defeat in a dramatic opening match at the Sydney International, but she survived the rollercoaster encounter against Ekaterina Alexandrova to claim her first win of 2019.
After fighting her way through qualifying with wins over Stefanie Voegele and Johanna Konta (via retirement), Alexandrova came into the first round seeking to claim her first career WTA Top 5 win.
She had the former US Open champion on the ropes, serving for the match and two points away from victory in the second set - but Stephens found a way to get the job done, coming back from a set down to win 0-6, 7-6(3), 7-6(3).
“[After the first set] I was, like, it's not going to get any worse than this. So it was like I might as well just play,” Stephens told press afterward.
“Obviously she was playing well. Sometimes when you play a player that's just playing like that, there is not much you can do. I knew at some point that I'd be able to win a game, I would hope, so just try and do that and took it one point at a time. That was it.”
Making her Sydney debut, Alexandrova started the match in emphatic style, firing back-to-back aces and never looking back after that. The Russian broke Stephens three times in a row, although the former US Open champion put up a strong fight despite the one-sided scoreline.
Both players were dialled in during the second set, and Stephens finally stopped Alexandrova’s run of six games in a row. They were deadlocked for most of the set, until Alexandrova pulled away to grab the break at 4-3.
But, serving for the match at 5-4, Alexandrova took a tumble after running down a backhand and seemed to jam her left wrist on the way down. This gave Stephens the chance to earn the break back, going from being two points away from defeat to forcing a tiebreak. Stephens bossed proceedings in the deciding tiebreak as Alexandrova struggled with her serves and backhands.
After receiving a medical time out between sets, Alexandrova came back to the court looking more settled and focused for the final set. She was rewarded early on, edging her way to a break at 3-1, her backhands firing once more. But Stephens wasn’t shrinking back, and the pair traded breaks three more times to send the match into another tiebreaker.
But much like in the previous tiebreak, Stephens dominated in the crucial moments, winning the tiebreak and taking the match after a grueling two hours and 38 minutes on court.
“I think this kind of gets you ready for Melbourne, kind of gets you in the right frame of mind,” Stephens said of the hot conditions. “It's probably going to be really hot every single day in Melbourne, so I guess it's good you get adjusted and know what it's going to be like.”
Up next for Stephens is another qualifier, with the tricky Yulia Putintseva awaiting in the second round. Putintseva defeated local wildcard Daria Gavrilova yesterday, 6-1, 7-6(4) to move on.
“I played her last year the week before the French. I lost,” Stephens recalled. “It wasn't a great match. But, yeah, we will see. Now it's on hard court. Different surface. Same thing, before a Slam. Just going to go out there and give it my best.”