Sloane Stephens survives scares
MELBOURNE, Australia -- You would not have blamed Sloane Stephens for being somewhat impatient Thursday.
The start of her second-round match at the Australian Open against Ajla Tomljanovic had been delayed for more than four hours because of the heat delay, then suspended twice for rain and again for lightning with Stephens leading 3-0 in the third set.
"It was more scary at that point because we were playing through the lightning," the 13th-seeded Stephens said. "It was intense. That's the worst thing, to be outside when it's lightning or to be in the middle of the ocean, like, by yourself."
It could not have been that much scarier, though, than coming back out and losing the first five games, which is what the 20-year-old did before displaying the grit and clutch ability that have become the trademark of her young career, winning the final four games and the match 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.
"Unlike any of the other young players, she comes through in big moments," said Chris Evert, ESPN tennis analyst and former world No. 1. "When her back is against the wall, she raises her game to another level and comes up with big shots. She plays pressure moments better than any of the other young players. She just needs to work harder earlier."
Stephens is one of four American women to advance to the third round, along with Serena Williams, Alison Riske and Lauren Davis. The other two American women in action Thursday, Christina McHale and Varvara Lepchenko, were eliminated in two very different but uneven three-setters.
McHale, defeated by No. 10 seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-0, 1-6, 6-2, had two break points early in the third set after winning the last four games of the second, but McHale committed 14 of her 37 unforced errors in the third set, failed on both break points and faded down the stretch to a player who has previously reached the quarters and semis here and was ranked No. 1 in the world from 2010 to 2012.
The match took place after the tournament's extreme-heat policy suspended play on the outside courts and thus was played with the Rod Laver Arena roof closed.
"I was really, really pleased and happy about that," said Wozniacki, who first gained international attention when, as a 19-year-old No. 9 seed, she lost to Kim Clijsters in the final of the 2009 US Open, and has been in the news lately after her Jan. 1 engagement to golfer Rory McIlroy. "I think playing out there in that heat must have been tough and very brutal."
Meanwhile, Lepchenko, playing No. 11 seed Simona Halep on one of those outside courts, certainly would not argue with the "brutal" characterization. She required two visits from tournament doctors in the second and third sets and fell 4-6, 6-0, 6-1.
The fact that Lepchenko finished the match at all amazed her, she said, still laboring in her news conference an hour and a half later.
"It was the first time in my life playing under these conditions, and it got on the worse side of me," said the 50th-ranked Uzbekistan native who became an American citizen in 2011. "At first, I didn't understand what was going on, and then my legs, my arms started to get heavier and I couldn't focus on one point and started feeling dizzier and dizzier.
"I tried everything, and unfortunately, I just couldn't continue playing 100 percent."
Lepchenko said she first started feeling the effects of heat exhaustion late in the first set.
"Then in the second set I couldn't focus on my returns, I couldn't see the ball," she said. "I started feeling more and more dizzy, and everything started going so fast ... and I needed more time between the points. I started feeling really hot on top of my head, and at one point, I completely lost it."
Lepchenko said she felt she took the necessary precautions to combat the heat but did not feel that play should have begun with temperatures at 107 degrees and soaring to a high of 110.
"The same goes a couple days ago when I played," she said. "It was the hottest time of the day, and I got caught up in that. Somehow I survived, but today it just didn't work. They should have started the matches after the temperature cooled down a little bit because this was just too much."