By Andrew Lawrence
September 02, 2012

NEW YORK --The story might have been the same -- 12th-seeded Ana Ivanovic of Serbia beat American Sloane Stephens (yet again) 6-7, 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the U.S. Open fourth round -- but the lessons were much different.

1. Stephens can't hang with the big girls just yet, but she's close. There was a lot of Groundhog Day in this night match. The opponents were Xeroxed copies from the 2011 draw. The venue, Arthur Ashe Stadium, was unchanged. Even the fourth-round stakes were the same. For a while Stephens played as if she might avoid a fate similar to the one she suffered last year, when she took a straight sets defeat from Ivanovic in 74 minutes. The 19-year-old American was smart about attacking Ivanovic's serve, using two first-set breaks to set up a 1-0 lead. But then, just like last year, Stephens struggled to defend her own serve. Over the next two frames Stephens won just 38 percent of her first-serve points, 44 percent on her second serve. The root of Stephens's service woes, she'd later reveal, was a minor abdominal strain.

"This morning I woke up with some swelling," she said, adding that she "just tried to kind of put it out of my head." But her compromised core not only cost her power on the stroke, it also often required her to take a second stroke with a kick that became predictable to Ivanovic over time. The Serb waited like a cheetah in tall grass before pouncing on them.

"I tried to run around sometimes and put more pressure with my forehand," Ivanovic said.

2. An Ivanovic short of the height of her powers is still stronger than most. She's been criticized to the point of caricature for vulnerabilities. (She can't serve, she can't stay healthy, she switches out coaches as if they come wrapped in cellophane.) But on Saturday night, Ivanovic flashed a knack for picking opponents apart that drove her ascent to the No. 1 ranking. Most impressive was the fearlessness with which she attacked Stephens' biggest weapon, her forehand. She went straight at the American's favored wing, but with deep, sharply angled groundstrokes designed to force Stephens to defend from stretch positions. The result was what you'd expect: a 6-foot woman pushing a 5-foot-7 teenager to the edge of the court to reach for shots, some of which she whiffed at badly. Ivanovic didn't let Stephens use her backhand to swing rallies back to her strike zone either. Stephens' deep court positioning opened up a buffet of net points, 27 of 37 Ivanovic converted. From the stands, Ivanovic's artistry evoked visions of 2008. For Stephens, the memories were more recent and still bad.

"She hits a lot of forehands. She hits the ball really hard. She made some really good shots," Stephens said. "That's kind of how she plays."

3. Both players drew important moral victories. Yes, Stephens bowed out earlier than she would have liked -- one round later than she did in at Wimbledon, one round earlier than she did at the French -- but not without establishing herself as a player to be reckoned with "when the big money comes around," as she put it. The smart money says she'll remain the youngest player ranked in the top 50 at year's end -- at least. The best is yet to come.

"Serena [Williams] is still playing, and she's going to be 31," Stephens said. "I have a ways to go."

Speaking of Williams, there's little reason to bet against her coasting into the quarterfinal round. The revelation is that Ivanovic could get there, too, and while playing better than she thought since suffering a foot injury that recently forced her withdrawal from a lead-up tournament. Her inability to walk without pain had her considering whether to withdraw from this one, too. Ivanovic's road to the quarters is not easy. Her next opponent, Bulgaria's Tsvetana Pironkova -- whom she lost to the last time she faced her, in Rome four years ago -- will be tough to navigate. Getting past Williams in a potential quarterfinal will be even tougher. Ivanovic is 0-for-3 against her, the last loss coming -- you guessed it -- a year ago this time on Ashe, in the round of 16. But Ivanovic seems more ready for the journey than she's ever been. Not getting too far ahead of herself has been key. Her goal was "to return to the top 10 this year," said Ivanovic, who entered the U.S. Open ranked 13th. "I really want to take care of my next match and then see how it progresses."

So far, so good.

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