Stephens battles her way into quarterfinals
MELBOURNE, Australia -- Sloane Stephens had to block out a horrible din coming from across the net -- the elongated groan-shriek-grunts that grew louder as Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski clambered her way back into their round of 16 match Monday.
She had to deal with the heat, the encroaching late-afternoon shadows on the court at Hisense Arena and the pressure of the biggest match she has ever been expected to win.
With all that on her hands, Stephens, at 19 the only teenager in the WTA's top 50, found her biggest challenge to be her own still-evolving psyche. She worked through it to defeat Jovanovski 6-1, 3-6, 7-5.
"I just had to find a way," Stephens said. "I think mentally it was pretty tough. I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, this is for the quarters of a Grand Slam and I'm completely just like not here right now.' I was like, 'I need to refocus.' I was playing my own self, I guess you could say. But I managed to get through, so that was good."
Serena Williams never let Russian 15th seed Maria Kirilenko into their round of 16 match, dominating 6-2, 6-0. Stephens made clear she preferred that outcome in an interview on ESPN as Williams took the court and it will make her first Grand Slam quarterfinal crackle with symbolism.
Williams is an elder stateswoman who has offered a bit of friendly advice now and then, not to mention a player bidding to plant her flag as the greatest ever in the women's game.
In their first-ever meeting earlier this month in Brisbane, Williams beat Stephens in straight sets 6-4, 6-3.
"Obviously every match is a learning experience," Stephens said. "But, I mean, you've just got to go and treat it like another match. It wasn't like, 'Oh, my God, I played Serena, I'm going to be so great at all these other things because she just taught me so much.' It was just another match, regular match. Little things that you just take and move on."
The 29th-seeded Stephens displayed veteran aplomb in her cruise-control first set, but dropped a notch in energy and aggression as her opponent adjusted and began dictating the points. The American dropped three service games in the second set and clearly was battling her own passivity as well as Jovanovski's laudable groundstrokes. When Stephens cracked a volley winner in the late going -- her seventh net point in as many tries -- it raised the question of why she wasn't coming in more.
Stephens credited Jovanoski for keeping her on her heels for a while.
"I was going cross court on all my shots," Stephens said. "That was safe. Can't lose with that. She was going down the line on every shot. She's hitting it with everything she has, every muscle in her body, and hitting it unbelievable.
"I couldn't find a rhythm, couldn't find anything. But sometimes you just kind of got to stick it out, and hopefully she comes down off her throne."
Both young women (Jovanovski is 21) struggled to hold serve in the third, but Stephens was the one who exorcised her demons more effectively in the end. She picked a perfect time to swat her first and only ace to hold at 5-all and seemed suddenly imbued with more confidence, breaking Jovanovski in the next game and serving out the match. She pumped her fist, happy if not completely satisfied.
"You obviously needed to see a show," Stephens told the crowd in a self-deprecating on-court interview after the match. Her supporters included a pair of fans who won seats in her players' box via a contest she sponsored on her Twitter feed, and her mother watching at home, about whom Stephens offered "probably had four heart attacks."
ESPN analyst Pam Shriver said the win is encouraging and Stephens' improvement now is a matter of fine-tuning and focus.
"If she's going to get to the top, she has to learn to do it from all parts of the court," said Shriver, who called the match. "She just has to learn how to transition [deeper into the court] more often."
Stephens will climb into the top 20 in the rankings next week with the win.
Williams and Stephens got to know each other better when they played on the U.S. Fed Cup team last year and talk at tournaments, but it might be a stretch to call them close.
"It's hard to be a real mentor when you're still in competition,'' Williams said.
"I doubt she has any expectations of me to be responsible for anything. Maybe she does. I don't know. But, you know, I'm here to compete and do the best I can, as well as she. And she's been doing really amazing. I'm really happy. I have a tough match, so we'll see.''
Kuznetsova pulls upset
Svetlana Kuznetsova told reporters she couldn't remember the last time she had been in a Grand Slam quarterfinal.
It really hasn't been that long -- 2011 at Roland Garros.
But Kuznetsova was a fixture at the majors for so many years, making 40 consecutive appearances from 2002 to 2012 and winning championships at Roland Garros (2009) and the U.S. Open (2004), that when she canceled her trip to Flushing Meadows last year to rest an injured knee, it felt as if she'd fallen off a cliff.
Still, she "never had a thought of stopping tennis," said Kuznetsova, who outlasted former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 to advance to the quarterfinals against top-seeded Victoria Azarenka of Belarus.
"When the knee was sore, I was so annoying to walk with the crutches all day long," Kuznetsova, ranked No. 75, said. "I went to Thailand, I went to Bali, on the beach with crutches, all day long, and I had blisters on my hands. This was the most annoying thing, and then recovery.
"But anyway, I had time home and just refresh my mind, and then I just understood that I want to play this game. I mean, I always loved it, but I wanted to have this desire to bring me back. This is what happened."
Azarenka owns three victories to Kuznetsova's four in their lifetimes series, but won both times they played last year, including a 6-1, 6-2 "disaster" -- by Kuznetsova's own description -- at Indian Wells.
"I got my ass kicked very badly," the Russian said. "But, I mean, she's tough. She's No. 1. I have nothing to lose. She has all the pressure. I know I got the game to give her some problems, and I will just do my best and just try to enjoy it."
Azarenka's 6-1, 6-1 demolition of Russia's Elena Vesnina, accomplished in 57 minutes, was such a snoozer that the post-mortem featured more questions about her musical predilections than her shot-making.
For the record, she warmed up today with a new mix by a DJ known as GoonRock. She also revealed that her grunt has been sampled for a soon-to-be-released number by another American DJ, Redfoo. (Kudos to the ASAP Sports crew of stenographers for doing research and spellchecks essential for those of us not immersed in electronic music.)
"It's not my vocals," Azarenka said of her audio cameo. "I don't take high key or low key there. It's just natural."
Of the collision with Kuznetsova, Azarenka said, "I think it's going to be [a] very tough match. I can see Sveta came back much fresher, much stronger. She knows how to handle big stages, big tournaments. She's a Grand Slam champion, as well.
"It's definitely an exciting match for me to be in. I'm sure it's going to be really tough. But, you know, I have to get ready and give my best."