American Sloane Stephens overcame a slow start on Wednesday afternoon at the BNP Paribas Open, narrowing her head-to-head against Great Britain’s Heather Watson to 3-5 with a 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-1 turnaround at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.
Stephens arrived in the California desert ranked an uncharacteristic No. 73 — her lowest position since she won the US Open as the World No. 83 in the summer of 2017. With the win, she improved to 19-17 on the year.
“Playing Heather is always a tough match,” said Stephens, who set a first-time clash with fellow American Jessica Pegula in the second round. “We grew up playing the juniors together. We’re really good friends. Literally, before the tournament, we were talking in the parking lot for like an hour about everything, how we have been friends for so long, how we’re able to separate the match and still be friends. Then we ended up playing each other in the first round.”
Both players struggled to find rhythm in the opening set, one that featured a combined six service breaks. Stephens, a quarterfinalist here in 2014, would serve for the stanza at 5-4, but couldn’t close it out.
Stephens, 28, forced a forehand error with her opponent serving at 5-6, 15-40 in the second set to force a decider. Now in control, the former World No. 3 surged ahead 5-0 in the third, sealing the match in two hours and 50 minutes.
“I just competed really well,” said Stephens. “Obviously, it was disappointing to lose that first set. But it was a battle, and I was still in the match. I knew I just had to keep fighting. That’s what I did. I’m just really pleased to squeak out a win here.”
Watson’s 2021 struggles continued, as she fell to 5-11 in first-round matches on the year.
Elsewhere in Tennis Paradise during the opening day of WTA main draw action, four other standout performances wowed the crowds on Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden:
1 | KEYS TO VICTORY… A 6-0, 7-5 victory should do wonders for Madison Keys’ confidence. The 26-year-old American had lost five consecutive matches since reaching the Round of 16 at Wimbledon. Making her eighth appearance at the BNP Paribas Open, her best result being a Round of 16 push in 2017, Keys moves on to face ninth seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia in Round 2. Their head-to-head stands at an even 2-2, with the Roland Garros finalist APav taking a 7-5, 6-2 decision earlier this year on clay in Madrid.
2 | YULIA STAYS HOT… Fresh off a runner-up showing on home turf in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, Yulia Putintseva notched her 31st victory of the season on Wednesday, downing Germany’s Andrea Petkovic, 7-6(2), 6-1. The Budapest champ and Mouratoglou Academy mentee will next face countrywoman Elena Rybakina in second round. They’ve met just once, in the Round of 16 in Rome last year, with Putintseva prevailing in three sets, 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-2.
3 | DOI GOING STRONG AT 30… A decade-and-a-half after turning pro, Japan’s Misaki Doi is still going strong on the WTA Tour. On Tuesday, the veteran lefthander, who reached a career-high No. 30 in 2016, outslugged American Ann Li, 6-2, 5-7, 7-5, to earn a second-round meeting with 32nd seed Sorana Cirstea. Doi is winless in three previous encounters with the Romanian, though they haven’t faced each other since 2017.
4 | SHELBY SOARS… Shelby Rogers’ feel-good moment in Arthur Ashe Stadium this summer was the stuff of tennis dreams, a 6-2, 1-6, 7-6(5) upset of World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty in the third round. Said the Charleston native afterward, “Tennis is funny like that. Right when you’re just like, ‘Why can I not hit a ball in the court?’, then you do something like this and you love the sport all over again.” The 44th-ranked American opened up her 2021 Indian Wells campaign with a 7-6(2), 6-2 victory over Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina. Up next is Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic, the No. 8 seed. Are we in for another high-profile upset?