When Sloane Stephens sped through the second set to wrap up her win against Pironkova, it was almost as if she was graciously making way for what everybody understood to be the marquee event of the day. By the time Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka took to Philippe Chatrier, theirs was the only singles match on court at Roland Garros. All seven of the women’s matches on the day had already been won in straight sets, leaving only the most anticipated match of the tournament to entertain the French crowd. The 19th match in a one-sided rivalry (Serena now leads 16-3)provided high drama, and a roaring comeback, as the world #1 found her game just in the nick of time. The net result? Serena Williams remains unbeaten against Azarenka in Grand Slam matches (9-0), and will now face Sloane Stephens in the fourth round.
A closer look at today’s matches:
Sloane Stephens d. Tsvetana Pironkova
Score: 6-4 6-1
Sloane Stephens advanced to her fourth consecutive round of 16 at Roland Garros with a clinical win over Tsvetana Pironkova. The most impressive feature of Stephens’ game this year in Paris has been her unflappable cool on court, first displayed against Venus Williams in the first round, and again today in completing her third straight sets win on the trot. Even after a mild hiccup while attempting to serve out the first set, Stephens regrouped quickly with steadier groundstrokes, showing no outward effect of her initial stumbling in the crucial moment. Pironkova was unable to mount a comeback as the American raced to a 5-0 lead before closing out the match 6-1.
Stephens gets another high-profile tussle with Serena Williams next.
(4) Petra Kvitova d. Irina-Camelia Begu
Score: 6-3 6-2
The world #4 conjured her best tennis of the tournament to beat Irina-Camelia Begu in a routine two sets. Kvitova’s serve was the major difference in the match, as Begu was able to get to deuce while returning serve only once. Kvitova’s serve was a weapon, to the tune of winning 85% of first tosses and 70% when made to hit a second. Simply put, those are insurmountable numbers for any opponent. After struggling through a pair of three-set matches to start the tournament, Kvitova finally displayed some of the form she used to trounce the field in Madrid. Another outing like this and Kvitova will make believers out of those who question whether she can win seven matches at a Slam on her least favorite surface.
Kvitova draws #23 Timea Bacsinszky in the fourth round.
Andreea Mitu d. Francesca Schiavone
Score: 7-5 6-4
After being ready to quit tennis a year ago having never won a Slam match, Andreea Mitu now finds herself in the fourth round of the French Open. Either woman would have granted tennis scribes a feel-good story with a win today; Schiavone was coming off one of the longest Slam matches in history and was in the midst of an unlikely resurgence. The Italian led throughout much of the first set, leading 3-0 and 5-3 until Mitu rallied to claim the final four games. Schiavone again led 4-3 in the second set , overcoming a 1-3 deficit, before the Romanian found her footing once more, eventually converting her third match point to advance.
Mitu will face Alison Van Uytvanck for a spot in the quarterfinals.
(1) Serena Williams vs (27) Victoria Azarenka
Score: 3-6 6-4 6-2
Even though their head-to-head is lopsided, meetings between Williams and Azarenka have often had the added gravitas of coming on the biggest stages: almost half have been played at Slams, with the rest all contested at either the Olympics or Premier events. Eighteen months ago, meeting in the third round of a Slam would have seemed utterly ludicrous. But, Azarenka’s injuries put a halt to what once promised to be the most enduring rivalry on the WTA for the remainder of Williams’ career.
Azarenka started quickly, her return game neutralizing what many consider the greatest serve in the history of women’s tennis. Williams looked sluggish for much of the first two sets, her feet unable to adapt to the pace and purpose of Azarenka’s shots. Down 3-6 2-4, Serena managed to ignite an intent missing in her game. In a flash, Williams held triple set point with Azarenka serving at 4-5 0-40. After losing the first three, Serena converted on the fourth, moments after a contentious play that saw umpire Kader Nouni rule the players replay a point after an Azarenka ball was called out incorrectly. Azarenka contended that Serena was not hindered by the call – as she thought it came after Williams already played the ball – and that the point should belong to Azarenka.
A visibly incensed Azarenka took a bathroom break after the heated end to the second set, and returned with the same focus that put her in the ascendancy throughout much of the match. She sped to a 2-0 lead and was noticeably more demonstrative when winning points. However, the momentum swing was brief. After falling behind 0-2, Williams found her highest gear to win the final six games of the match and complete her 16th win against Azarenka in 19 tries. What had the makings of a thrilling third set ended in a whimper as Azarenka had no answers for Williams’ finishing onslaught.
The Serena Williams who won 10 of the last 12 games in today’s match should have little trouble getting by Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. If, however, she is unable to find something close to her best tennis for extended periods, Stephens has played the type of consistently aggressive tennis that could upset Williams.
Other players advancing:
Alison Van Uytvanck d. Kristina Mladenovic (Score: 6-4 6-1)
(23) Timea Bacsinszky d. (16) Madison Keys (Score: 6-4 6-2)
Julia Goerges d. Irina Falconi (Score: 6-4 6-1)
17) Sara Errani d. (10) Andrea Petkovic (Score: 6-3 6-3)
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