Sloane Stephens was too strong for Victoria Azarenka on Sunday at Indian Wells, brushing aside the Belarusian to advance to the third round.
She was joined on the winners’ list by world No.1 Simona Halep and two-time major champion Angelique Kerber, who each won three-set tussles to advance at the $8 million event.
In a match that was re-scheduled due to Saturday night’s bad weather, Stephens completed a 6-1 7-5 win to set up a meeting with Daria Kasatkina, the No.20 seed from Russia.
It was Stephens’ first victory over Azarenka in four meetings; the American had never before won a set in their series.
.@SloaneStephens drops just six games in her @BNPPARIBASOPEN victory!?
Defeats Azarenka for the first time, 6-1, 7-5 pic.twitter.com/QVZ5sxPrdl
— WTA (@WTA) March 11, 2018
“Obviously I knew it was going to be a tough match, I’d never beaten her before. I just wanted to come out and play my game,” she said on court.
“I always play pretty well here; these courts suit me well so I’m just really happy to get a win in front of you guys.”
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The crowd packed into Stadium 2 to follow the all-star battle between the reigning US Open champion and two-time Australian Open champion, the latter who was playing her first tournament in eight months.
And the fans had plenty to cheer about when Stephens – playing on home soil for the first time since her breakthrough at Flushing Meadows in September – raced through the opening set thanks to some impressive shot-making.
8 FH winners to 1 help @SloaneStephens to a 6-1 first set over Azarenka on Stadium 2 #BNPPO18
— Tennismash (@tennismash) March 11, 2018
Azarenka improved in the second set and a 4-5, 15-30 stood two points away from sending the match to a third set.
But Stephens served her way out of trouble and would ultimately win 12 of the last 13 points to seal a significant victory.
Having gone winless in five months since her US Open win, the American has now won three of her last four matches.
Azarenka, who committed 24 unforced errors to Stephens’ 11, was philosophical after the defeat.
“With all I’ve been through, I’m surprised I have my shit together at all,” she said in her press conference.
Later on Sunday, Halep and Kerber were both pushed to the limit by inspired opponents before eventually securing victory.
Like Stephens, Kerber was forced to wait overnight – having already lost the first set – to complete her second-round match against Ekaterina Makarova.
When she returned to court, she was ready for what the former world No.8 would bring, out-slugging Makarova to win 3-6 6-4 6-2. She improves her head-to-head record against the Russian to 8-6; it was her first victory against Makarova since 2015.
Rain delay comeback complete!@AngeliqueKerber edges Makarova, 3-6, 6-4, 6-2. #BNPPO18 pic.twitter.com/haqJPl8ofd
— WTA (@WTA) March 12, 2018
“A match like this is not so easy,” said Kerber, who goes on to face defending champion Elena Vesnina in the third round.
“We had a night between and it was not so easy yesterday, I lost the first set. But I was trying to go out there today and play my best, and of course turning around the match. And yeah, I did it – and I’m happy about the game I played.”
Halep, meanwhile, was blown off the court in the first set against 19-year-old American Caroline Dolehide, who impressed with her weight of shot, shape of ball and stylish serve – especially her venomous kicker.
The world No.1 broke for a 5-3 lead in the second only for Dolehide to break straight back and level scores at 5-5.
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Yet Halep played a savvy tiebreak and was the superior player in the third as Dolehide appeared to run out of both mental and physical energy.
Despite 30 unforced errors during the match, Halep committed just four in the final set to win a high-quality battle 1-6 7-6(3) 6-2.
“(I have) a lot of respect for her. She’s a great player and her topspin is really tough to return,” Halep said.
“I was in trouble a little bit in the second set but I just wanted to stay there, to fight until the end. I had to be more aggressive and keep her back, because if she attacks the ball it’s really tough to return.
“I think also I moved well. I was a little bit stronger on the legs in the end, and maybe that’s why I won it.”
Halep will next face China’s Wang Qiang, who upset 14th seed Kristina Mladenovic 6-1 6-2 to extended her lopsided head-to-head record against the Frenchwoman to 3-0.
H2H: Wang 3-0 Mladenovic
Wang d Kiki 61 64 (Dubai '17)
Wang d Kiki 60 60 (Tokyo '17)
Wang d Kiki 61 62 (#BNPPO18)
— Matt Trollope (@MattyAT) March 12, 2018
Mladenovic was one of several big-name seeds to depart the Indian Wells draw on Sunday.
After ninth seed Petra Kvitova’s shock loss to 16-year-old wildcard Amanda Anisimova, reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko was brushed aside by Petra Martic.
Ostapenko, the No.6 seed, had impressed in a three-set win over Belinda Bencic in the previous round.
But she was thoroughly outclassed by the Croatian, who wrapped up a 6-3 6-3 win in 79 minutes.
Martic is demonstrating an ability to raise her game on the biggest stages – in the past year she has reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, Wimbledon, the Australian Open and now Indian Wells.
She next takes on Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova for a place in the quarterfinals.
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