By Amy Tennery
NEWYORK (Reuters) – Defending U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens kept alive her bid for back-to-back titles in New York on Friday, defeating former world number one Victoria Azarenka 6-3 6-4 in a gritty match to set up a fourth-round showdown with Elise Mertens.
The third-seeded American was the sharper of the pair at the outset, firing nine winners and fending off Azarenka’s lone break-point opportunity to take the first set in a little over half an hour.
But two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka raised her game in the second set, battling back from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead, much to the chagrin of the partisan New York crowd.
A break in the action to close the roof on Arthur Ashe court appeared to bolster Stephens, who tightened up her defence and broke the big-serving Belarusian for a fifth time with a forehand winner to ward off the comeback and go through.
“When things got tough I hung in there,” Stephens, who is the highest remaining seed in the women’s draw, said in an on-court interview. “You guys helped a lot,” she told the crowd.
Stephens will look for redemption when she faces Mertens on Sunday after losing to the Belgian in straight sets at the Cincinnati Masters two weeks ago.
(Reporting By Amy Tennery; editing by Clare Fallon)