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Maria Kirilenko springs surprise to beat Sloane Stephens

Maria Kirilenko prepares to serve
by Matt Trollope
Monday 23 June 2014

A couple of savvy tennis pundits noted the match-up between Maria Kirilenko and Sloane Stephens in the first round at Wimbledon and predicted that it could be one of The Championships’ early upsets.

It was a big call, given Stephens was the No.18 seed and a quarter-finalist at the All England Club last year. The American had reached at least the fourth round in her past six major tournaments – the best streak of any active player – while Kirilenko was struggling in her comeback from a knee injury, having slipped outside the top 100 after winning just one match since March.

But those savvy pundits were onto something; Kirilenko went against the form guide to shock Stephens 6-2, 7-6(6) on Court 18.

“Obviously Maria is a great player. She's done well here in the past. I knew it was going to be tricky, but that's like every other Grand Slam first-round match,” Stephens said.

“She definitely played well today and it was tough. But sometimes it's just too good, and today was one of those days.”

Perhaps it was not such a surprise after all. Kirilenko is a former top 10 player and as recently as last year finished inside the world’s top 20. She displayed that kind of form from the very first ball, winning six of the first seven points to immediately assert control.

It was so refreshing to see the Russian somewhat back to her best after enduring such a lean season to date. Soaking up Stephen’s powerful drives, she refused to cede her court positioning up on the baseline and cleverly manoeuvred the ball and her opponent.

Quickly behind a set, Stephens responded with a surge in intensity. When she connected properly with her groundstrokes she was the superior player, her forehand in particular a damaging weapon. Wresting control of rallies with first-strike tennis, she established a 4-2 lead.

Kirilenko proved a gritty opponent. She levelled and soon found herself 6-5 up, even holding five match points. Yet the errors Stephens produced to gift the Russian those match points were replaced with solid tennis when she needed it; she fought them all off to send the set to a tie-break, quickly skipped out to a 5-2 lead, and brought up a set point with a stinging down-the-line backhand.

Time for another momentum shift. Kirilenko played reflex lob and swinging volley winners to level the breaker at 6-6, and two points later, celebrated the upset with arms aloft.

In a big-hitting battle on Court 7, Coco Vandeweghe came out on top against No.27 seed Garbine Muguruza in three torrid sets.

Just last week, Vandeweghe upset the Spaniard en route to her first career WTA title in 's-Hertogenbosch and she repeated the feat with a 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 victory.

It was a match-up between two practitioners of first-strike tennis, and in the opening set Vandeweghe’s powerful first serve was proving the difference. Although Muguruza was able to land several blows with her colossal ground strokes, Vandeweghe kept her handcuffed on the defensive.

That changed in the second set when Muguruza’s power began to wear the American down and extract more errors.

The third set was a tense affair, with Vandeweghe typically forcing the play but Muguruza – a quarter-finalist at Roland Garros – was able to level at 5-5. In a dramatic 12th game, Muguruza survived five match points before dishing up consecutive double faults to hand Vandeweghe an upset victory.

Earlier, Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, the No.12 seed, carried on her rich vein of form on Court 4 against Slovak Jana Cepelova, breezing to a 6-2, 6-3 victory.

Cepelova rose to prominence with her stunning defeat of world No.1 Serena Williams at Charleston in April. But she was no match for the Italian veteran, who possessed too much power and consistency for the 21-year-old. Serving for the match, Pennetta looked a picture of focus as she strode confidently to the line, keeping her intensity high and her shots deep and penetrating to force errors off her opponent’s racket and seal victory in exactly one hour. Next up is young American Lauren Davis.

Several other women’s seeds had their matches suspended due to rain late on Monday.

No.16 seed Caroline Wozniacki lead Shahar Peer of Israel 6-3, 2-0 before the heavens opened, while this also stopped No.14 seed Sara Errani in her tracks against talented young Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia; Garcia had just levelled their match at a set apiece.

No.28 seed and French Open quarter-finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova was in the opening stages of her match against qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito; games were on serve early in the first set.

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