NEW YORK—Sloane Stephens showed a great deal of promise on Arthur Ashe Stadium tonight, but in the end, the experience of former world No. 1 Ana Ivanovic won out.
In a third-round U.S. Open encounter contested under the lights, the 24-year-old Serb, seeded 12th, defeated the young American, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-2. The players, two of the sunniest personalities on the women’s tour, put on a joyless death march of a match that ran an excruciating two hours and 21 minutes. During that time, they combined for 87 unforced errors, 15 double faults, and 11 breaks of serve.
At the outset, Stephens seemed poised to extend her attention-grabbing run at her native Grand Slam, having taken down veteran Italian Francesca Schivaone in the first round. She was poised in another way, as well, coming out of the blocks as the calmer of the two women and earning a break in the third game of the match while Ivanovic appeared a bit on edge, querying a great many line calls, either challenging unsuccessfully via the replay system, or querying the chair umpire. But Stephens’ play became increasingly erratic and Ivanovic earned back the break. Each played well at times, but rarely at the same time, resulting in precious few memorable rallies and scant energy in the stands. By the time it was all over, the two traded breaks a second time. Stephens won the ensuing tiebreaker on a single minibreak, drawing a long ball on set point following two aggressive forehands.
As the match wore on, clear battle lines were drawn: Ivanovic’s sporadic and powerful offense versus Stephens’ often jaw-dropping defense. On two occasions, the 19-year-old Stephens ran down shots that everybody in the stadium thought were point-enders: one came on an Ivanovic cross-court forehand deep in the first set, the other on a second-set drop shot that barely left the ground on its bounce. More generally, throughout the match, Stephens scampered along or behind the baseline, repeatedly slicing, squash-shotting, and slapping balls back into play, often succeeding in drawing an error.
By contrast, Ivanovic amped up her ground strokes after the first set and ventured to net more often, succeeding there on a number of occasions with carved volleys that took advantage of Stephens’ too-deep positioning. At times, Ivanovic's offense was ill-considered, as with several go-for-broke service returns that found the net or sailed long, while at others, it paid off, as with two successive down-the-line return winners that handed her the final, decisive break of the second set, putting her up 5-4 and setting the stage for her to serve it out, which she did.
By the third set, Ivanovic had emerged as the more steady and strategic of the two: At 2-all, Stephens hit two double faults, one of which she gingerly tapped several feet long, then attempted an ill-fated backhand-down-the-line on break point. (In her press conference, Stephens said she woke up this morning with an abdominal strain that was partially to blame for her service woes.) The two produced a number of arduous, entertaining rallies in the final set—when they both played well simultaneously, it was great albeit brief theater—but Ivanovic stayed in the majority of the marathon points long enough to finally put the ball just out of reach of her opponent and claim victory on the night.