Zhang sends Stephens packing

  • Val Febbo
  • Ben Solomon

Chinese world No.34 Zhang Shuai has summoned her fond memories of Margaret Court Arena with a stunning 2-6 7-6(4) 6-2 victory over reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens on Day 1 of Australian Open 2018.

The 28-year-old was one game away from elimination in the second set with the American serving for the match at 5-4, but her grit and determination came to the fore as she dazzled on the same court where she defeated Simona Halep en route to the 2016 quarterfinals.

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Her rallying and ball placement proved to be the key, causing Stephens to make 29 forced errors, compared to 17 off her own racquet.

Zhang said her mind as much as her ability to move the American around the court was a big factor in her victory. 

Forced errors
29 Sloane Stephens
17 Shuai Zhang

“When she was serving for the match I was a little bit sad because I didn’t want to go home,” she said post match.

“So I kept telling myself to try my best in every game. 

“She’s a great player, and I today feel like I’m really lucky. I played so well in the second and third sets.”

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The loss was Stephens’ eighth in a row, with her last win coming in the final at Flushing Meadows.

After the opening two games went against serve, the opening set was dominated by the American, winning 75 per cent of points when returning second serves.

Stephens was the clear aggressor in the first set, hitting 14 winners and making just nine unforced errors compared to Zhang’s five winners and 15 errors.

Zhang raced out to a 3-0 lead in the second set, breaking the American early thanks to a variety of errors from Stephens.

After the world No.13 posted her first game of the set, things started to click, breaking on her second attempt in the fifth game to get back on serve.

After the pair exchanged another set of breaks, Stephens managed to level proceedings and mount further pressure on Zhang’s serve, the Chinese No.2 crumbling to give the American a chance to serve out the match and claim her first win in over four months.

But Zhang showed why she once rose to as high as No.23 in the world, clubbing the ball and moving the American from side to side to get the set back on serve and force a tiebreak.

After falling behind early, Zhang dominated the breaker with five straight points to take the set and level the match.

“I kept concentrated and I thought maybe she was a little bit tired,” Zhang said.

“In the first set and second set she played really well, I would hit a hard shot she would hit it for a winner.

“I didn’t think I had a chance, but in the second set we had more rallies and I was playing the same quality of shots and she started to miss so I thought she might be a little tired.

“I just focused myself.”