WUHAN, China -- No.10 seed Sloane Stephens of the United States reclaimed her winning ways with a 7-5, 6-4 victory over home favorite Zhang Shuai of China in the first round of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open on Sunday evening.
"It was a good match," Stephens said, after the match. "It’s obviously tough playing a Chinese player in the first round, so I’m happy to be through. Definitely a tough match against a tough competitor."
Stephens and Zhang came into this encounter with their head-to-head deadlocked at 2-2, but Zhang had in fact won their last two meetings, including a first-round victory at the Australian Open last year. Nevertheless, 2017 US Open champion Stephens emerged the winner this time around after one hour and 44 minutes of play, which, in the process, snapped a three-match losing streak dating back to Cincinnati over a month ago.
Stephens finished the match with two fewer winners than Zhang, but the Chinese player, a Wimbledon quarterfinalist earlier in the season, had 11 more unforced errors than the American. Stephens actually ended the clash with a higher rate of success winning points with her second serve than with her first serve, and the American claimed nearly two-thirds of points off of the Zhang second serve.
In the second round, Stephens will face either another Chinese player, Wang Yafan, or a fellow American, qualifier Lauren Davis. Davis and Wang will contest their first-round match on Monday.
It was Zhang who attained the first break point of the match at 3-2, and she jumped out to the first solid lead after Stephens sent a rally backhand wide to cede a 4-2 lead to the Chinese No.2. Stephens, however, broke right back after a Zhang forehand flew long on break point in the next game, kicking off a closely contested opening stanza.
Stephens went on a run of points late in the set, holding at love for 5-5 before a slew of forehand miscues by Zhang gave the American triple break point in the following game. Stephens would not turn down the opportunity, as the former World No.3 fired a forehand winner to convert the first break point and notch the 6-5 lead.
Serving for the set, Stephens needed to withstand exceptional defensive skills by Zhang to grind her way to a pair of set points. The American eventually converted her second chance of the game after a service return from Zhang went wide.
Strong returning by Stephens led her to a double-break advantage in the second set, but despite facing a 4-1 deficit, Zhang fought her way back to level footing at 4-4. However, her efforts to reach parity were squandered in the very next game, as she let a 30-0 lead slip and dropped serve after a long backhand error on break point.
Serving for the match at 5-4, Stephens jockeyed with Zhang to wrest control of that game, and the American watched three match points slip out of her hands. Stephens, though, grasped a fourth match point after a Zhang groundstroke went long, and the No.10 converted that chance at last, forcing an error with a forehand to book her spot in the second round.
"I think when you get to the end of the year, everyone’s a little bit tired, so you kind of just have to push through," Stephens stated. "Obviously being here, away from home, the farthest we probably go, except for, like, Australia. It’s tough being away. Big time change. It’s a little difficult, but other than that, the conditions are good, the courts are good, hotels are good, and so, it’s pretty easy."