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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, September 1, 2021

 
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Sloane Stephens rode her stinging serve and crackling forehand to a statement win defeating Coco Gauff 6-4, 6-2 to reach the US Open third round for the seventh time.

Photo credit: Getty

Sloane Stephens once helped her friend Coco Gauff celebrate her 10th birthday.

Tonight, Stephens crashed an all-American bash with buzz-kill intent and fierce forehand strikes.

More: Serena to Decide Future after US Open

Stephens rode her stinging serve and crackling forehand to a statement win defeating Gauff 6-4, 6-2 to surge into the US Open third round for the seventh time.

The 2017 US Open champion served 83 percent, slammed down three love holds in her final four service games, persistently pounded away at Gauff’s forehand and denied the only break point she faced in a 65-minute victory.




Playing with a champion’s poise and precision, Stephens used a 10-point surge to take charge of the second set in a match played amid heavy rain pelting the retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium.

“The forehand was key today,” Stephens told ESPN’s Pam Shriver afterward. “I wanted to come out here and really execute and play my game. I was able to do that well. So I’m really pleased with how I played."

The 28-year-old Stephens could face 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber for a place in the fourth round if Kerber wins tonight. 

The 21st-seeded Gauff reached the US Open girls' final the year Stephens stopped Madison Keys to capture the 2017 US Open.

Facing the talented teenager 11 years her junior, the 66th-ranked Stephens showed the sharpness and polish in her game that Gauff is still working to consistently attain.

It was Stephens’ second straight win over a good American friend following her third-set tiebreaker victory over Madison Keys in a blockbuster first-rounder that was a rematch of the 2017 final.

“I love Coco; I think everyone knows I love Coco,” Stephens said. “She’s such a great player. I feel so lucky to have seen her grow up and play since she was like eight years old.

“So I’ve seen her game really transition and change and I’m really proud of the girl she is and the woman she’s becoming. I know there’s gonna be great things ahead for her.”

Though both women are exceptional movers and two of the best pure athletes in the field, their strengths are different. Stephens is at her best patrolling the area behind the baseline firing her forehand into the corners, while Gauff's backhand is her best groundstroke and she's most lethal stepping into the court.

On the fast Arthur Ashe Stadium hard court, Stephens rushed Gauff’s forehand wing, which is predicated on an elaborate backswing and sometimes forced the 21st-seed to scrape low shots out of the corners, which can be challenging with her western grip.

This first match between the pair showed Gauff's game is still a work in progress, while a smooth Stephens is finding her groove and redirecting drives with accuracy in Flushing Meadows again. 

"I will say she probably hit her forehand the best that I've seen in a long time," Gauff said. "Also that could be just different because this is my first time facing her. I never practiced with her, so...

"That could just be my own thing because this is my first time feeling her ball. But she definitely played well tonight. She definitely was the better player tonight."

Cracking her first serve with confidence at the outset, Gauff made 10 of her first 14 first serves slashing her third ace to hold at love for 3-2.

Stephens stepped in slid her two-hander down the line answering with a love hold to level after six games.

Though Stephens has relied on her fast feet, balance and precise counter-punching skills to reach a couple of Grand Slam finals, she possesses more power than she often shows. Pressed to deuce in the eight game, Stephens amped up her aggression and swing speed clubbing successive forehands to even after eight games.

The forehand is Stephens’ kill shot and she drilled a diagonal forehand for double break point in the ninth game. Twenty-eight minutes into a tight match, the teenager blinked double-faulting into net to hand the former champion the break and a 5-4 lead.

Champions not only recognize pivotal points in matches—they seize them. Stephens did exactly that hammering her fastest serve of the night—a 111 mph slider—for a second set point and finishing with that fierce forehand.

Stephens’ superior forehand gave her the edge in a close set decided on a single break. Both women served well with Stephens winning 24 of 29 first-serve points in the set.

Tennis Express

Bouncing on her toes behind the baseline, Gauff used her court coverage to coax her first break point. Stephens saved it with a sharp serve out wide withstanding the pressure to level after four games of the second set.

Working her way to net behind a forehand down the line, Stephens carved a slick drop volley for love-30 then tested the teenager’s volley to earn triple break point. A wild forehand from Gauff strayed wide as Stephens scored the break for 3-2 on a six-point surge.

Continuing to target Gauff’s forehand, Stephens stretched that streak to 10 consecutive points extending her lead to 4-2.

Facing friendly fire against Gauff and Keys infuses former champion Stephens with the confidence she can sustain this roll.

"Obviously I've had to battle two good friends. I think the pressure is a little bit different when you play two people that you know well," Stephens said. "It's a different type of pressure. Obviously playing here at the US Open and playing Americans, it's very different.

"But I'm really happy with the two wins. I played good tennis to get them. Yeah, I mean, it's still only the third round of a slam so I have to keep going. But it's nice to know that I was able to get those two wins with all the pressure and outer things happening."


 

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