The third round is pretty much make-or-break for the famously streaky 2017 US Open winner. Once she passes the midpoint of a tournament, Stephens almost always makes the final.
Certainly the smooth all-courter is finding her range and building ominous form at Melbourne Park. She is yet to drop a set against No.31 seeded Martic, Timea Babos and Taylor Townsend.
Stephens started slowly against the taller Croat, dropping her opening game and going down 2-0. Martic, seeded in a major for the first time, is a fine mover and gritty competitor, willing to break up baseline barrages with drop shots and surprise net forays.
But the American, forever probing weakness, was able to exploit her opponent’s forehand, with its laboured wind-up. Stephens levelled at 4-all, aided by two Martic forehand misses. Another forehand error on set-point, after the Croat had led 2-0, handed Stephens the tiebreak 8-6.
The American glides about the court and affects a serene exterior, but a fist-pump and cry of “Fight” revealed her determination. A disappointed Martic, meanwhile, was issued a warning for racquet abuse.
Again it was the Croat who gained the early break, Stephens flubbing three points to go down 3-1 and remonstrating with herself. But she evened up in the very next game with a backhand pass winner, and another war cry.
Martic, who made the fourth round here in 2018 against Elise Mertens, would be denied an early 28th birthday present for tomorrow. Instead it was Stephens who celebrated, notching her 200th career win.