The Sloane Stephens tennis game took a while to arrive this evening. But once it did, she played an airtight brand of tennis, eventually smothering Caty McNally to earn a 6-4, 6-2 victory in the first round of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

The beginning was all McNally. Or, watching how the rallies played out in the first four games, zero from Stephens. More meaningfully, five from Stephens. That’s the number of points she won in the first four games.

“Not ideal,” said Stephens of the horrific start. As the match commenced shortly after 7:00 p.m., amid late afternoon sunshine, long shadows and attendant glare, neither player was seeing the ball particularly well. But of the two, Stephens was more disturbed by the harsh light, as she shanked one ball after another, forehands and backhands constantly sprayed wide and long. Said Stephens, “It wasn’t connecting all.”

The 19-year-old McNally has made impressive marks in the early phase of her career with a distinct brand of all-court, attacking, versatile tennis. Yet much as McNally attempted to apply that kind of pressure as the match got underway, in large part the first four games had more to do with Stephens’ poor play than anything particularly brilliant from McNally, other than solid movement and consistency.

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Stephens shook off a brutal start to find an excellent form on Tuesday night.

Stephens shook off a brutal start to find an excellent form on Tuesday night. 

Regardless of how distraught Stephens was, once serving at 4-0, the 134th-ranked McNally seemed headed for one of those essential wins that can propel a career. Over the course of that game, she held two points to go up 5-0, but won neither as Stephens broke back. Having at least earned one game, Stephens’ movement and precision began to improve significantly. Serving at 1-4, 30-40, Stephens did what she does best, stepping into the ball brilliantly to smack a massive forehand. This was the kind of shot that earned her the 2017 US Open title.

As the 67th-ranked Stephens asserted herself, it appeared after all that McNally had not asked enough questions, Stephens’ early errors a form of fool’s gold. McNally’s depth and accuracy fell off, profoundly so in the ninth game. Serving at 4-4, 30-15, McNally netted a forehand and a backhand and was soon broken. In the lead for the first time, Stephens closed out the 54-minute opener on her third set point.

McNally, likely anguished by the squandered lead, offered minimal resistance as the second set got underway. Though McNally overcame a 2-0 deficit to level the set, Stephens by this point was light years removed from the person who’d begun the match. An in-form Stephens is a master of patrol and command, a mix of a smooth glide and a swift strike. This was quite visible all through the second set, Stephens often pinpointing her serve and cracking the forehand. In 33 minutes, Stephens won the second set 6-2. “I knew it would click, so it was just a question of when,” she said.

Why panic when you have faith?