Stephens defeats Gauff at US Open and backs Murray in toilet breaks dispute | US Open Tennis 2021

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Four years ago, Sloane Stephens made a stunning run to the US Open title as the world’s 83rd-ranked player. If the 28-year-old American keeps playing like she did on Wednesday night, there’s no reason that improbable history couldn’t repeat itself in the week or so ahead.

Amid the steady din of violent rains from the remnants of Hurricane Ida that hammered the roof above Arthur Ashe Stadium, Stephens relied on a dialled-in serve, weapons-grade forehand and veteran sangfroid throughout a professional 6-4, 6-2 win over 21st-seeded Coco Gauff in an all-American second-round blockbuster.

Gauff, the youngest player in the Women’s Tennis Association’s top 100 and one of the faces of the tournament, was headlining the night session in the world’s biggest tennis stadium for the first time since reaching the third round on her main-draw debut back in 2019. That became a night she’d sooner forget: a 6-3, 6-0 loss to Naomi Osaka that left her in tears.

The 17-year-old has come a long way since then, pocketing a pair of WTA titles and reaching this year’s French Open quarter-finals while climbing to a career-high ranking of No 23. But on a night when there was not a whole lot to separate the two, it was Stephens who managed to raise her level at the critical junctures. “I feel like there’s just an experience lacking that I have,” a downcast Gauff admitted in the aftermath. “I definitely think it shows. I think that I just need to play more matches so I feel more comfortable in the pressure moments.”

Stephens, meanwhile, voiced support for Andy Murray who criticised his opponent Stefanos Tsitsipas for taking a seven-minute toilet break during their first-round encounter on Monday. “They make a lot of rule changes for smaller things, like, they took one minute off the warmup,” she said. “I think there definitely needs to be a rule or changes … When you get into six, seven, eight, nine minutes, OK, what are you doing in there? Do you need help?”

After both players breezed through their opening service games with little resistance, it was Gauff who first betrayed her nerve while serving at 4-4, flinching in three straight baseline rallies to go break point down before gifting away the game with an untimely double fault. After the change of ends, Stephens coolly served out the set in 34 minutes.

Stephens’ athleticism and ability to retrieve powerful groundstrokes, in addition to her matured variety and understanding of point construction, gave her a decisive advantage in the lengthier exchanges. So it came as no surprise that she opened the second frame pounding deep, flat missiles down the middle of the court with the goal of extending the rallies and coaxing unforced errors from her younger foe. Moments after saving the only break point she’d face all night at 2-all, Stephens tightened her grip on the proceedings by breaking Gauff at love in the span of about two minutes.

It got late early from there for the teenager. Stephens held at love to extend a run of 11 straight points won, then went up a double break at 5-2 when Gauff badly sprayed a forehand from behind the baseline. Stephens didn’t mince about in the endgame, rattling off four quick points to hold at love and close the show in 66 minutes, not long before New York City mayor Bill de Blasio declared a rare travel ban for all non-emergency vehicles and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority suspended all service, leaving hundreds of spectators stranded by the grounds.

Stephens’ remarkable average forehand speed off the ground of 78mph was faster than any male or female player on Ashe this year, according to advanced statistics only available on the tournament’s main show court. “The forehand was key today,” said Stephens, who landed 84% of her first serves in play and won 80% of those points. “I wanted to come out here and really execute and play my game and I was able to do that well, so I’m really pleased with how I played.”

Stephens, then 25, had been sidelined for 11 months by injury and was ranked 957th in the world a month before the 2017 US Open, only to survive a wildly unpredictable fortnight in which the top eight women’s seeds were eliminated by the quarter-finals for the first time at any major tournament since the grand slams allowed professionals to compete with amateurs in 1968. That was enough for some critics to dismiss her surprise triumph as a fluke, but Stephens backed up her maiden slam with a formidable 2018 campaign that included the Miami title and a run to the French Open final while peaking at No 3 in the rankings.

Coco Gauff in action at Flushing Meadows. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

She’s waged familiar battles with inconsistency since, dropping to 66th in the world this season despite reaching the last 16 at Roland Garros and the third round at Wimbledon. Coming into Flushing Meadows with an unextraordinary singles record of 15 wins and 14 losses on the year, Stephens fought from behind on Monday afternoon in a third-set tiebreaker to see off Madison Keys before Wednesday night’s more straightforward affair.

In terms of style Stephens has always defied easy categorisation. She is not endowed with devastating power but is more than solid off both wings even if she favours the forehand for winners. Her speed is not blinding but the American remains one of the tour’s best movers, quick off the mark and seemingly never out of position. No single element of the package grades as exceptional but, when everything is clicking, Stephens is as complete as it gets.

It won’t get easier from here. Stephens’ third-round opponent may well be the No 16 seed and 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber, whose own night-session match against the Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina was postponed to Thursday afternoon after the relentless downpour began seeping in through openings in the facade of Louis Armstrong Stadium, ahead of a potential date with Osaka in the round of 16. But there’s no question that Stephens, who from a young age earned a reputation for playing her best on the biggest stages, feeds off the atmosphere at the site of her greatest triumph.

“It’s so fun in there,” Stephens said of Ashe. “It’s like a good place, it’s a happy place. I think I’ve had a lot of good memories there. For me, it’s a feel-good. I think being in this position, trying to work my way through the tournament, have tough matches, like it’s nice to have that comfort, those moments to look back on. OK, I’m comfortable here, I’m happy here.”

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