Stephens Finds Her Focus And Advances To First Miami Open Final

WASHINGTON, March 30, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka played a lot of grueling points during their Miami Open presented by Itaú women’s semifinal match on Thursday afternoon. The sometimes tricky conditions on Stadium court wreaked havoc, and both players had trouble holding their respective serves over the course of their two hour and nine minute match. However, when the wind – and the crowd – settled down, the No. 13 seed Stephens found her focus. She won an impressive 12 of the final 13 games and weathered the storm, prevailing 3-6, 6-2, 6-1 over the wild card Azarenka, who was looking to advance to her fourth Miami Open final.

On Saturday afternoon, Stephens will go after her first Miami Open title when she faces World No. 5 Jelena Ostapenko, who needed just under two hours to end the dream run of American qualifier Danielle Collins, 7-6(1), 6-3. It will be the first career meeting between Stephens and Ostapenko.

Azarenka broke Stephens four times during the opening set, but couldn’t sustain her early momentum in the next two sets. Instead, in the middle set, Stephens rallied from down 0-2 and won six straight games – a virtual bagel – by breaking Azarenka three times. She showed much balance, moved the ball much better, and kept Azarenka on the run.

“It’s as hard watching as it is playing,” said Kamau Murray, Stephens’s coach, during an in-match interview with ESPN between the second and third sets.

In the final set, Stephens continued her turnaround and jumped out to a 2-0 lead, making it eight consecutive games that she won. As Stephens got stronger, Azarenka slowed down and appeared to favor her hip flexor. Plus, it seemed that the 186th-ranked Azarenka became flustered by the crowd and complained to the chair umpire about it. However, Stephens managed to block out the crowd noise and kept a steady focus. She broke Azarenka, again, then held her own service to make it 10 games won in a row in taking a commanding 4-0 lead. The finish line was definitely in sight for Stephens.

Although Azarenka finally held serve, it wasn’t enough to overcome the double break she faced against Stephens. Soon, the American put away the match with – what else? – another service break.

While Stephens outpointed Azarenka 89-79, she scored more points (52) off her returns than on her own serve (37).

“I just knew I had to keep fighting,” said Stephens during her on-court interview after winning. “In the first set, I was down but I came back. I battled really well. I knew that if I did that in the second, I would be right there. I won a lot of games in a row. I just tried to keep the momentum going.”

Prior to Thursday’s semifinal, Azarenka had won 22 of her last 26 semifinal matches, and after the first set things looked promising for the Belarus native. After all, those four losses had come against Serena Williams (twice) and Maria Sharapova (twice). However, it didn’t work out as Azarenka had hoped it would. Add Stephens to the list.

Before Thursday’s three-setter, each of the previous four matches between Azarenka and Stephens had been lopsided and decided in straight sets. Although Azarenka still owns a 3-2 advantage over Stephens in their career head-to-head, Stephens has won their last two meetings, including two weeks ago at Indian Wells.

“You never know what might happen,” said Stephens, who will be playing in her first WTA Mandatory Event final on Saturday. “The balls started to drop (for me) and I started playing more consistent.

“I came out here today and told myself to focus on my side of the court. I was not going to look over there. I kept jumping around when things weren’t going well. It paid off.”

Now, back in a major event final after winning the 2017 U.S. Open last fall, Stephens, 25, is ready to show she’s a Top 10 player for real. She’s already won five WTA titles during her career and adding Miami would give her nice momentum heading into the upcoming clay season and beyond.

Del Potro: Great tennis and a battle

When Juan Martín del Potro beat Milos Raonic in a third-set tie-break with a forehand winner as the clock neared midnight on Wednesday night, it marked the 15th consecutive victory by the World No. 6 and advanced him to Friday’s semifinal round against No. 14 seed John Isner.

“It was great tennis and a battle,” said del Potro, the No. 5 seed,  of his 5-7, 7-6 (1), 7-6 (3) breathtaking triumph over the No. 20 seed Raonic on Stadium court that lasted 2 hours and 52 minutes. “We both enjoyed the game and the crowd were amazing, making for an incredible atmosphere on court. I’m so glad to still be alive and reach the semifinals.

“I always think this may be my last match, so I put in a lot of effort to give myself a chance to win. I’m pleased with my level of tennis and all my success, but of course I’d like to reach the final.”

Del Potro, 29, is playing some of his best tennis of his injury-plagued career, and his 21 victories this season are tops in the ATP. Now that his wrists are healthy, the Argentine has won two consecutive hard court tournaments, at Acapulco and Indian Wells. He is still in the running to win the “Sunshine Double,” which is the monicker given to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells and the Miami Open.

Noteworthy …

• In Thursday afternoon’s men’s quarterfinal match, No. 16 seed Pablo Carreño Busta rebounded from a second set letdown and upset No. 6 seed Kevin Anderson, 6-4, 5-7, 7-6 (6). Over the course of the 2 hour and 42 minute match, Carreño Busta withstood the assault of Anderson’s first serve, which produced 14 aces and a 70 percent success rate on first-serve points won (47 of 67). To his credit, the Spaniard who earlier this week was selected to play next week in Spain’s Davis Cup tie against Germany, won 70 percent (50 of 71) of his first-serve points and converted three break point opportunities against the South African. Anderson is now 0-for-10 in Masters 1000 quarterfinals.

Carreño Busta will face No. 4 seed Alexander Zverev in the second men’s semifinal on Friday evening after the German avenged his 2017 U.S. Open loss to No. 29 Borna Coric by defeating the Croatian, 6-4, 6-4. Zverev is now into his third ATP Masters 1000 semifinal. The other two times, in Rome and Montreal last year, he not only reached the finals but also won the trophies. It will be Zverev’s first head-to-head against Carreño Busta.

“Impressive, aggressive play,” tweeted David Law of BBC5 Live and co-host of The Tennis Podcast, in describing Zverev’s demeanor against Coric. “Often feel he is too passive and patient rather than taking players out with big tennis.”

Zverev took out Coric with big tennis on Thursday night. He served eight aces, won 30 of 36 (83%) first-serve points and converted 11 of 17 (65%) opportunities on his second serve. Plus, he saved both break points he faced and dropped just 12 points on his serve. It all added up to a nice win for the World No. 5.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.