NEW YORK—Defending a major title is one of the most demanding tasks in tennis. It requires extraordinary discipline, an endless supply of determination, a measure of luck and an inner security that belongs only to players who fully understand how good they are and how much greater they could become. The pressure to hold onto a cherished crown is almost unbearable to those without a healthy ego and a clear vision of who they are and what they want to accomplish. Through the years, I have witnessed an awful lot of players who have felt unduly burdened by defending majors. Many of these individuals have wilted under the heat of expectations and wandered into an uncomfortable place psychologically, wishing they could be just about anywhere else.
Don’t put Sloane Stephens in that category. The 25-year-old American is right where she wants to be now, clearly accepting and even enjoying the challenge of being a defending champion, carrying herself like a woman who believes there is no reason why she can’t repeat here on the hard courts of New York, striving to do everything in her power to be the champion again in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Stephens has unmistakably come here with no other aim than to succeed, and that can be defined as nothing less than winning the Open once more.
Today, Stephens took on none other than Victoria Azarenka, the 29-year-old from Belarus who owns a rather prodigious resume. Azarenka was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2012. She won the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, and those same years she was runner-up to Serena Williams at the US Open. Both of those contests were three set showdowns, and Azarenka led 5-3 in the third set of the 2012 encounter with Williams. At that time, it seemed entirely possible that she would have a career reminiscent of Justine Henin, a woman of such deep drive and high ambitions that she collected seven major titles in her Hall of Fame career.
But after spending three consecutive years (2011-2013) entrenched among the top three in the world, Azarenka was beset by injuries and personal issues. She hasn't been the same player since. Her son Leo was born in December of 2016; a draining custody suit has followed. Her life has been irrevocably altered by motherhood, but she has remained committed to re-establishing herself as a front line player and reminding the tennis world that her rise to prominence was no accident—it was the product of hard work, extreme dedication and an enduring love of her trade.
Azarenka headed into this tournament as a wild card ranked No. 79 in the world, but looked impressive in a pair of straight set triumphs over Victoria Kuzmova and No. 25 seed Daria Gavrilova, the effervescent Australian. Those victories earned her the right to play an important third-round match against Stephens. The American had captured her first-round assignment comfortably, winning 6-1, 7-5 over Evgeniya Rodina. But then she had to endure a hard struggle against qualifier Anhelina Kalinina, prevailing 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, despite some rough patches along the way.
Stephens knew full well that the performance she gave in that second-round clash would not suffice against a veteran of Azarenka’s stature. The American had no alternative but to lift her game substantially if she wanted to move past a resolute Azarenka—it was as simple as that. The stakes would be higher. The tennis would be played out in loftier territory. Stephens would be required to bring out her best tennis. Otherwise, Azarenka would be capable of pulling off an upset.
In the opening game, as if to demonstrate that she was going to give this contest everything she had, Azarenka wiped away a break point and held on for 1-0, but Stephens took 12 of the next 16 points and three games in a row, holding at 15 for 1-1, breaking at 30 for 2-1 on a double fault from Azarenka, and then holding at 15 for 3-1 at 15, missing only one first serve in the fourth game.
Azarenka answered with a love hold in the fifth game, hitting two winners in the process. Stephens then found herself break point down in the sixth game, but she saved it with a clever looping shot that drew an errant backhand from Azarenka. A down-the-line forehand winner took Stephens to game point, and she moved to 4-2 on an unforced error from her formidable adversary. After Azarenka held at 30 with an ace in the seventh game, Stephens went to 5-3 with an ace of her own, dropping only one point in that game.
The die had been cast. Azarenka was getting worn down in the baseline exchangers by the ingenuity and Court craft of Stephens, who was displaying consistency across the board off the ground, breaking down Azarenka’s forehand with regularity, opening up the court creatively, hardly missing a ball when not provoked. On top of that, Stephens lured Azarenka into a critical number of backhand errors with change of pace shots and high looping balls. She broke Azarenka at love to seal the set 6-3, coaxing three forehand errors and one off the backhand.
Clearly, Stephens was playing the better brand of tennis, giving away little, moving with much more alacrity than her opponent, orchestrating points largely on her own terms. Forehand to forehand, there was no contest because Stephens was hitting with considerably more depth, pace and precision. Stephens maintained her mastery of the match in the early stages of the second set. At 40-30 in the first game, chasing a forehand on the full stretch, Stephens sent back a brilliant low slice that was unmanageable for Azarenka.
That superb piece of defense gave Stephens a 1-0 lead, but Azarenka held at love for 1-1. Now Stephens was pushed to deuce three times and taken to break point once, but she held on for 2-1. Azarenka led 40-15 in the following game, but Stephens moved her side to side and corner to corner, capturing four points in a row to gain the break for 3-1.
When Stephens led 30-0 in the fifth game, she looked likely to move inexorably to victory. But a double fault at 30-15 and another at 30-40 cost her that game. Soon Stephens was at triple break point with Azarenka serving in the following game, but the former world No. 1 served an ace down the T and came all the way back to hold for 3-3.
The momentum was shifting significantly. Stephens rallied from 15-40 to reach game point in the seventh game, but a weak second serve was punished with severity by Azarenka, who connected impeccably for a backhand return winner. On the penultimate point of that game, Stephens double faulted. Azarenka then pounced, drilling a deep backhand return down the middle, approaching, and forcing Stephens into a netted forehand pass.
Azarenka had secured three games in a row for a 4-3 lead, with Stephens squandering opportunities all through that stretch. But at that moment, a light drizzle began to fall. The brief delay to put the retractable roof up was just the reprieve Stephens needed to clear her mind. When play resumed under the roof, she was highly focused once more. Stephens promptly broke Azarenka at 30 for 4-4. Down break point in the ninth game, Stephens unleashed a crackling forehand down the line that Azarenka could not answer. The American took the next two points to move ahead with a 5-4 lead.
Now Azarenka was serving to stay in the match. Stephens covered the court as if her life depended on it, and won a 23-stroke exchange as Azarenka netted a backhand off a let cord grazing backhand from the American. Stephens followed with a forehand winner behind Azarenka: 0-30. Azarenka won the next point but an unruffled Stephens stuck assiduously to her task. Apprehensively, Azarenka steered a looping forehand wide down the line to fall behind 15-40, and then Stephens jubilantly ended it all with a gorgeous running forehand passing shot off a half volley from Azarenka.
And so Stephens was victorious 6-4, 6-3. When it was over, Azarenka said of Stephens, “I always thought she was very talented. It’s not about what she’s doing differently. I mean she probably playing more consistent.”
Stephens put her finger on the pulse of what happened as she defeated a player she once respected so much that it got used to get in her way.
"I think the first couple of times I played her, 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 [tournament] already," she said. "When I played her the first couple of times, it was more like that. I was happy to be on the court with her and competing with her, pushing her and playing good points, and things like that. I was not necessarily expecting to win.
"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.”
In this case, Stephens was talking about her view of playing a big match against Azarenka. But what she said applies to each and all of her rivals. The bottom line is that, these days, she likes her chances against anyone in the world.