It’s been a long, hard road back…for both Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka. That may come as a bit of a surprise for Sloane Stephens, given her impressive win at last year’s US Open only six months ago. But, Sloane’s post-victory run has been difficult, with a number of early round losses and a loss of form. Victoria Azarenka has been facing an entirely different challenge — figuring out how to return to the tour in the face of a complicated custody situation. After giving birth to her son at the end of 2016, Azarenka made a solid return to the tour at last year’s Wimbledon — playing perhaps the match of the tournament, with her three set win over Heather Watson. But, she has been unable to travel on the tour since then, as she became embroiled in a difficult custody battle that has required her son to remain in California.
So, as they both warmed up on a hot afternoon in the desert, it was unclear how each would respond to the high caliber opponent across the net. But, from the start, Sloane Stephens looked very sharp. Her groundstrokes audibly popped with the force of her racquet, and the movement she used to confound Madison Keys in that US Open final similarly frustrated Azarenka. After trading breaks of serve in the first two games, Stephens rattled off the next five games to win the first set handily.
Of course, with a player of Azarenka’s quality, such a lopsided first set required some errors from Vika. Much to her own chagrin, she provided those on more occasions than she would have liked. Whether it was missing simple rally balls (if there is such a thing at this level), or overcooking her attack shots, the errors drove Azarenka to scream in frustration, even as she tried to coach herself back into it. And, whether it was rust or just an off day, Azarenka’s shots often lacked the firepower of Stephens’ — even though Azarenka’s game isn’t built on the hardness of her shots, as Keys’ or Kvitova’s are, she gave Stephens more chances to attack than was ideal. That said, even when her shots let her down, Azarenka kept up her competitive intensity, and it’s hard to imagine that she won’t improve once she is able to compete on a regular basis.
Given their roles today, it may come as a surprise that this was Stephens’ first win against Azarenka — but all of their prior matches were straight set wins by Azarenka at the Australian Open, including their infamous semifinal where Azarenka took a medical timeout to deal with breathing issues and stress. Today, however, Sloane looked a lot more like the Grand Slam champion she now is — and, given the avalanche of upsets in this year’s tournament, she has as good a chance as anyone to add this trophy to her collection.