It was a nervy, up-and-down affair, characterized on both sides more by hitting big and hoping than by any particular strategy. But in the end, Sloane Stephens deservedly prevailed in the next-generation battle with Laura Robson, winning 7-5, 6-3 to move in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Stephens also won the only other tour-level match these two have played, in Hobart earlier this month, but with either Kimiko Date-Krumm or Bojana Jovanovski waiting in the round of 16, the stakes were considerably higher here.
The 19-year-old American, who will reportedly move into the Top 20 with this win, raced to a 4-0 lead when Robson made a disastrous start. Robson, who appeared to be suffering the after-effects of her late-night epic with Petra Kvitova on Thursday, took a medical time-out for treatment on her shoulder. Whether it was that brief pause or the raucous support of the well-oiled crowd for the Melbourne-born Brit, Stephens lost her way and Robson leveled the match, saving a set point in a six-deuce game at 4-5 with one of her trademark booming forehand winners.
In windy conditions, both young women were putting as much height on the ball as possible, seemingly daring the other to be the first to come in and risk taking it out of the air. Robson, hampered by her shoulder, was not serving as big as usual, and without that shot her second ball became vulnerable. It was up to Stephens to take the bull by the horns, and as Robson served at 5-6, she did just that. Stephens came forward for 30-30, then forced Robson to try for a winner on the run after battering her relentlessly in a 24-shot rally for a second set point. Robson put a forehand long for her 29th unforced error, giving Stephens the first set.
It was an open question as to whether Robson had it in her physically to play a three-set match. As it transpired, Stephens didn’t give her the chance. An ill-judged drop-shot attempt got Robson in trouble at 1-2, and although she saved one first break point against her with a nice volley, Stephens kept attacking and broke when Robson put a volley into the net.
Reaping the dividends of playing a much cleaner match, Stephens produced two of her own classic forehand winners to hold for 4-1 and, with added confidence, started to attack up the lines effectively. Serving for the match, nerves once again appeared to play a role after she double-faulted to give up two break points, but Stephens saved the first with a forehand winner, and scrambled well enough and long enough on the second for Robson’s poor volleying to cost her again.
Stephens needed to display that resilience again after dumping a volley into the net from right on top of it on her first match point, but she mastered the situation to earn a second match point immediately, and took it as Robson hooked a forehand wide.