It threatened to be another upset in a women’s draw already plagued by some extremely high-profile exits.
Yet No.17 seed Sloane Stephens hung on in a nervy, error-strewn third set against qualifier Petra Cetkovska, winning 7-6(3) 0-6 6-4 and securing safe passage through to the fourth round at the All England Club.
There she will play unseeded teen sensation Monica Puig, hoping to continue capitalising on a wide-open draw and reach her second Grand Slam quarter-final of 2013.
But such progress for Stephens almost never eventuated.
“It was definitely tough. Lost focus there. But, I mean, it's a Grand Slam, so you just have to play hard, just keep going, know battling will go a long ways,” Stephens reflected.
“I was like, All right, one point at a time and just play. I think that always helps.”
Cetkovska, who despite her status as a qualifier, was ranked as high as No.25 a year ago before a right ankle injury ravaged the rest of her season, ran rings around the 20-year-old on No.3 Court in the early stages.
This was on Friday night, when the match was contested in damp, dim, wintery conditions before being suspended at one set all due to fading light.
The Czech broke early and maintained her advantage all the way through the opening set to build a 5-3 lead, controlling the middle of the court with her well-directed, deep groundstrokes and keeping Stephens off-balance with strategically-employed slice backhands.
Cetkovska was unable to maintain her high level, and as errors appeared in her game, Stephens stormed back, erasing the service break deficit. When the set progressed to a tiebreak, it was Stephens keeping her error count better in check while also deploying some scintillating forehands, forcing the errors from Cetkovska and eventually pocketing the first set.
Cetkovska then simply reverted to what she’d been doing in the opening stages of the match.
She eliminated errors, executed well and set to work chipping away at Stephens' powerful serve, scoring a break in the second game and watching her opponent grow frustrated. Stephens promptly collapsed under the weight of her errors; she double-faulted twice to surrender her serve in the fourth game, and produced another four mistakes – two groundstroke errors, two missed returns – to fall behind 5-0.
When the world No.196 threaded a backhand down the line for a winner, she’d levelled the match without dropping a game.
It was under sunnier skies that the two women returned to court on Saturday, but the standard of tennis unfortunately failed to correlate with the vastly improved weather.
“It's always tough coming back like the next day to finish the match... I just feel a lot better coming back to play knowing I'm playing two out of three, not one out of one,” Stephens said.
At one stage midway through the third, a young fan astutely commented to his father: “There hasn’t been a winner in the last 12 points”.
Indeed, Stephens and Cetkovska combined to complete the set with 10 winners and 27 errors, but what was lacking in quality certainly wasn’t devoid of tension or drama.
Cetkovska immediately broke then held to win her eighth straight game; she even led 3-1 before playing a disastrous fifth game, which finished when she dumped a sitter of a volley into the net to be broken at love. As Stephens managed to hold for 3-3, it became a matter of who was more prepared to seize the moment.
That player turned out to be the American. She broke Cetkovska in the seventh game, and then after falling behind 0-30 on serve in the eighth, came out on top of a struggle at deuce, clubbing forehand and overhead winners to cement a 5-3 lead.
The Czech forced Stephens to serve for it, and the 17th seed held firm, again impressively capping the game – and the match – with a pair of winners.
20:24...But boy, it was a barrow-load of fun. I hope you enjoyed it even half as much as we did. Thank you for all your messages throughout, you've been the glue holding us together as the edges frayed amid the madness. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for us Brits to raise a toast to Andy Murray and Fred Perry. British sporting legends both.
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