Sloane Stephens compiled a strong match to earn a win over Alisa Kleybanova at Indian Wells. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- The drought in the desert is over. Sloane Stephens defeated Alisa Kleybanova 6-3, 7-5 on Tuesday to become the first American woman to advance to the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open since 2008. She will play Italy's Flavia Pennetta on Thursday.
"I'm glad to be doing well here," Stephens said. "Obviously, I haven't made it past the second round here ever. It's good to be in the quarterfinals."
Ranked No. 18, Stephens is the highest-seeded American woman in the draw after Serena Williams skipped the tournament for the 13th consecutive year. The 20-year-old has rebounded well from a winless run at two Middle East tournaments in February to play some solid tennis here, including a third-round victory over No. 13 Ana Ivanovic. On Tuesday against Kleybanova, she served at 70 percent and hit 20 winners to 27 unforced errors compared to the aggressive Russian's 25 winners and 37 unforced errors.
Kleybanova, 24, is in the midst of a comeback after being diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2011. A former top-20 player, she is ranked No. 142 and entered the main draw under a protected ranking of No. 24. Despite the loss, Kleybanova posted her best tournament result since before her diagnosis, defeating Victoria Duval, Garbine Muguruza and Maria Torro-Flor to make the fourth round.
The other three women left in Stephens' half of the draw are top seed Li Na, Australian Open finalist and Mexican Open champion Dominika Cibulkova and Pennetta. Despite making her deepest run at a Premier Mandatory event, Stephens feels far less pressure now than she did at the start of the tournament.
"The beginning of the tournament is when you have the most nerves," she said. "Then once you get going, you're like, The person I'm playing has done well, you're both playing well, so it's good we are this deep in the tournament. But at the beginning of the tournament, first round, you're like, Oh, my God. Please don't lose first round. You're worried about a lot."
Stephens' win came on the heels of 2012 finalist John Isner's 6-4, 6-3 victory over Lu Yen-Sun in the third round. Isner, the last U.S. man in the draw, will face Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round.