INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — No. 1 Serena Williams overcame a slow start on Tuesday to defeat Sloane Stephens 6-7, 6-2, 6-2 and advance to the BNP Paribas Open quarterfinals. Williams won just three points in the first three games in falling two-breaks down at 0-3, but rebounded after losing the first set tiebreak to lift her level and run away with the match. She will play either No. 23 Elina Svitolina or No. 27 Timea Bacsinszky in the quarterfinals.
Stephens once again found a way to play some of her best tennis against Serena, forcing the top seed to elevate her game. She did well to take advantage of Serena's slow start and withstood the pressure once Serena began to find her rhythm and won four straight games to lead 4-3 in the first set. The two exchanged holds, with Stephens saving a set point, to get to a tiebreak. The 21-year-old played a contained, clean tiebreak, taking advantage of Serena's errors to win the tiebreaker 7-3.
“I think Sloane played really well in the first set,” Williams said. “Actually in the whole match. I just made a few errors, but I think she forced me to make those errors.”
After hitting a surprising 28 unforced errors in the first set, Williams turned things around right away at the start of the second. She broke Stephens immediately and never looked back. Serena hit just nine unforced errors in the second set and 15 in the final set. After giving up five break chances in the first set, of which Stephens converted two, Williams’ service games were impenetrable. Stephens didn't see a break point in the final two sets, with Williams stepping up to serve 13 aces to nine double-faults. Serena finished with 31 winners to 52 unforced errors, while Stephens hit 13 winners to 36 unforced errors.
“I think I played really well my last three matches, and then today I felt I played really well,” Stephens said. Prior to Tuesday's match she earned wins over two seeds, Angelique Kerber and Svetlana Kuznetsova, and won back-to-back matches for the first time this season.
“I thought I played a really solid first set,” Stephens said. “Obviously I was playing [the] No. 1 player in the world so it was going to be a little tough. She played well in the second and third set. You know, you win some, you lose some. It was a good effort by me.”
As always, despite all the off-court tension from two years ago, Serena was effusive in her praise of Stephens. “I have always thought Sloane can be really great,” she said. “I think she's on the right track. She played really well. She had some very good wins here against two seeds. So I thought it was a really positive result even today.”