Sloane Stephens has progressed to the third round at Melbourne Park for the first time since 2014, defeating her junior doubles partner Timea Babos 6-3 6-1 Wednesday – the straight-forward scoreline doing no justice to the fluctuating battle.

In a brutal first set of extended games and searching rallies, the American won five straight games at 3-all to break open the match. But the No.5 seed faced tough resistance on every point. The first set lasted 56 minutes, longer than Serena Williams’ first-round victory.

There were no secrets or surprises in this battle of ‘frenemies’, with the 25-year-olds winning junior Wimbledon, French and US doubles titles together in 2010.

The opening games alone lasted 10 minutes, with both players surviving breakpoints to hold. Stephens needed to break Babos twice in the first set and was taken to four deuces and six set-points before closing it out 6-3 in 56 gruelling minutes.

The taller Hungarian has the bigger serve of the pair but Babos found herself down breakpoints in every single service game – 23 in all. It was the stat, and the story, of the match.

No.5 seed Stephens gained some respite with easier holds and directed her attack to the Babos forehand. The better athlete and mover, there is a web-like scheme to the Stephens game, probing and varying the pace, loops and angles before landing the killer blow or just as likely drawing an error from her opponent.

But even at 6-3 2-0 and 0-40 on the Babos serve, when Stephens couldn’t break the Hungarian’s resistance and started venting frustration at her poor conversion rate, the match stood at a potential turning point.

Sloane Stephens and Timea Babos
Sloane Stephens and Timea Babos
Suddenly, Stephens’ chequered 1-2 start to the year loomed large, as Babos survived four more break chances, and 18 for the match, to hold serve and stay in touch.

The No.66-ranked Babos was far from intimidated by her former doubles partner – and she’s stranger herself to big stages as the world doubles No.1 in 2018 and reigning doubles champion in Australia with Kristina Mladenovic.

But she blew a breakpoint herself next game and a chance to level for 2-2 with a reckless backhand miss down the line. It proved effectively her last shot. Babos’ first top-five win would not come over Stephens.

Wednesday is a cooler day in Melbourne – temperate playing conditions on the new heat scale – but both players went for ice towels and vests on the changeovers.

Despite being first up in Rod Laver Arena it was still “a little bit toasty” according to Stephens. Not a morning person, she was happy to get through in an hour and 35 minutes. “I don’t like to get up so early but today it worked out.”

As with her first round over compatriot Taylor Townsend, patience proved the key.

“Her serve is ridiculously good,” Stephens said of the heap of saved break points. “I just had to hang in there and be patient.”

All good omens for the No.5 seed, who didn’t win a match in Australia in 2018.

“I’m kind of conquering all the places where I’ve been terrible – Asia, here,” she kidded.

Not quite; as a 19-year-old, Stephens was a breakout semifinalist here in 2013, with wins over Simona Halep and Serena Williams. Her next opponent is No.31 seed Petra Martic.

Source: Suzi Petkovski