Sloane Stephens ended her losing run to start the year with a hard-fought three-set win over France's Oceane Dodin in the first round of the Miami Open on Wednesday.

Former US Open champion Stephens, ranked 49th in the world, defeated Dodin 6-7 (6-8) 6-4 6-2.

Stephens progresses to the second round where the top seeds, including top three Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep, will be introduced and she will face 28th seed Amanda Anisimova.

Danielle Collins, Wang Qiang, Alize Cornet and Caroline Garcia were among the other winners on Wednesday, while Svetlana Kuznetsova bowed out.

 

SLOANE FIGHTBACK

Stephens had endured a dismal start to 2021, enduring an 0-4 win-loss record to begin the year.

The 28-year-old American was made to do it the hard way against Dodin on Wednesday, dropping the first set in a tie-break.

Stephens improved on her return in the second set, winning 73 per cent of points off Dodin's second serve before running away with the match in the last.

"It's been a rough one for me lately, so I'm really pleased to get through that, fight my way through it and make it happen somehow," Stephens said post-match.

FORMER MAJOR WINNER GONE

Two-time grand slam winner Kuznetsova was the major first-round casualty, going down 2-6 6-2 6-1 to France's Alize Cornet.

Kuznetsova, who is now ranked 35th in the world, bows out with Cornet to face ninth seed Petra Kvitova.

Collins got past France's Kristina Mladenovic 6-3 6-3 with the 40th-ranked American setting up a second-round clash with 32nd seed Veronika Kudermetova.

Wang, ranked 38th in the world, also progressed despite dropping a set in a 6-1 3-6 6-3 win over Spanish qualifier Aliona Bolsova.

SECOND-ROUND MATCH-UPS

The round of 64 will commence on Thursday, with third seed Halep to face Garcia who got past another Romanian, Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-1 6-2.

Top seed Barty will be in action against Slovakia's Kristina Kucova, while fourth seed Sofia Kenin will take on former top-10 player Andrea Petkovic.

Second seed Osaka has an assignment against 77th-ranked Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, while 14th seed Victoria Azarenka is already into the third round with opponent Laura Siegemund withdrawing after her win on Tuesday.

Daria Kasatkina and Margarita Gasparyan fended off two of the great stalwarts of Russian tennis to set up a final showdown at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy.

Kasatkina recovered from a slow start to overcome fourth seed and two-time grand slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova, after Gasparyan saw off former Wimbledon and US Open runner-up Vera Zvonareva.

Zvonareva, 36, and Gasparyan, whose promising career has been disrupted by injury, were both allocated wildcard entries to the tournament and seized advantage to reach the last four.

Gasparyan, a 26-year-old whose single-handed backhand is an unusual sight in modern tennis, came through the clash with Zvonareva a 6-3 7-6 (11-9) winner to reach her first final at WTA 500 level.

The world number 126 will tackle former top-10 star Kasatkina for the title, after the 23-year-old Barcelona resident scored a remarkable 1-6 6-0 6-2 win over Kuznetsova in the second semi-final.

It was a flat Kasatkina who surrendered the opening set, but she then dashed off eight games in a row, levelling the match and surging to a 2-0 lead in the decider, knocking the stuffing out of 35-year-old Kuznetsova's challenge.

Kasatkina, a 23-year-old with more variety than most, had also dropped the first set 6-1 in her quarter-final win over second seed Veronika Kudermetova on Friday before finding her best game.

She said on Amazon Prime: "Well, why not, if losing the first set will guarantee me victory, why not?"

Kasatkina, the eighth seed this week, won the Phillip Island Trophy in Melbourne last month so is chasing a second WTA title of the year.

She is relishing the clash with Gasparyan, saying: "It's cool to have players of different styles. Tomorrow's a final so you've just got to go out there and try to show your best tennis."

An all-Russian final was already guaranteed, given the host country locked down all four semi-final places, and it will be the 30th such WTA title match.

Russian duo Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva recorded contrasting victories on home soil to reach the last eight of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy.  

Kuznetsova - who has won both the French and US Open during her distinguished career - needed just over an hour to get past teenage qualifier Wang Xinyu by a 6-1 7-5 scoreline.  

The 35-year-old converted six of the nine break-point opportunities she created, though was made to work for her win in the second set having previously taken nine of the opening 10 games.  

After failing to serve out for the match when 5-3 ahead, the fourth seed eventually prevailed when recording a break of her own with the score at 6-5.  

Zvonareva, meanwhile, was on court for three hours and 10 minutes as she produced an impressive upset, knocking out third seed Fiona Ferro 6-7 (8-6) 7-5 7-6 (7-2).  

"We both were fighting for every point, trying to hang in there. I think I was able to play some good tennis when it mattered, and I'm happy with the win of course,” Zvonareva said after being involved in the longest match in the history of the tournament, per the WTA's website.  

The 36-year-old came out on top in a deciding tie-break having been unable to hold on to an early 2-0 lead in the set.  

Anastasia Gasanova and Katarina Zavatska had set a new record for the longest contest earlier on Wednesday, the former eventually prevailing 6-2 6-7 (8-6), 7-5 after three hours and four minutes in an eventful first-round tie.

Ekaterina Alexandrova is another Russian player to progress to the last eight, seeing off Tereza Martincova in straight sets.

In the final match, Romanian qualifier Jaqueline Cristian surprised Jelena Ostapenko 6-3 7-6 (11-9) to reach her first ever WTA 500 quarter-final, where her opponent will be Kuznetsova.

Victoria Azarenka booked her spot in the second round of the Qatar Open with a 6-2 6-3 win over Svetlana Kuznetsova on Monday. 

It was the first time the pair had faced off since the final of the 2016 Miami Open and Azarenka, who won back-to-back titles in Doha in 2012 and 2013, struck first, eventually claiming the opening set in 44 minutes. 

She needed six match points to see off Kuznetsova in the second set to tee up a last-16 meeting with either Laura Siegemund or Elena Rybakina. 

There was also a win for former world number one Garbine Muguruza, who defeated Veronika Kudermetova 6-2 7-6 (7-4).

"Veronika was a very tough opponent," Muguruza told a media conference. "[I'm] just happy with this win. We played a year ago, and I remember it was a tough match. I'm happy to have closed it in two sets."

Fifth seed Kiki Bertens, meanwhile, was dumped out by a rampant Jelena Ostapenko in straight sets. 

The 2017 French Open champion hit 26 winners on her way to an emphatic 6-0 6-2 win against her Dutch opponent, who was playing her first match in five months following Achilles surgery. 

Anett Kontaveit overcame number seven seed beaten Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady 6-1 6-2 to set up a second-round clash with Angelique Kerber, who beat Cagla Buyukakcay 6-4 6-2.

In the day's other match, Maria Sakkari beat Mayar Sherif 6-0 6-3. 

Meanwhile, teenage qualifier Clara Tauson shocked number one seed Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-3 6-4 in the first round of the Lyon Open. 

There were also wins for Arantxa Rus, Nina Stojanovic, Timea Babos, Greet Minnen and Fiona Ferro in France. 

Sofia Kenin's title defence came to a shock end in the second round of the Australian Open, where world number one Ash Barty advanced amid injury concerns.

Kenin was looking to become the first woman to defend her crown at Melbourne Park since Victoria Azarenka in 2013, instead, she was a high-profile casualty in warm conditions on Thursday.

Barty, who lost to Kenin in last year's semi-finals in Melbourne, stayed alive with a straight-sets win over fellow Australian Daria Gavrilova.

Former world number one Karolina Pliskova also progressed beyond the second round as fifth seed Elina Svitolina blitzed American sensation Coco Gauff.

 

KENIN OUSTED IN BOILOVER

The American star arrived at the year's first grand slam with high expectations and looking to become the first woman to go back-to-back at a major since Serena Williams in 2016.

But fourth seed Kenin fell to experienced Estonian Kaia Kanepi 6-3 6-2, having tallied 10 winners and 22 unforced errors in windy conditions in Melbourne - the scene of her breakthrough slam more than 12 months ago.

It was Kenin's first defeat to a player ranked outside the top 50 since going down to then-number 54 Iga Swiatek in the 2020 French Open final.

Asked why she was nervous pre-match, Kenin told reporters: "It's like the outside pressure. I felt really nervous. I haven't felt my game for, I don't know how long, but I haven't really felt my game so well, even in my first round. 

"I played well, but still haven't felt 100 per cent game-wise. It's obviously tough."

 

STRAPPED THIGH? NO WORRIES FOR BARTY​

Barty's left thigh was heavily strapped amid concerns but the 2019 French Open champion still booked her spot in the third round with a 6-1 7-6 (9-7) win over countrywoman Gavrilova.

The first Australian woman to reach the semi-finals in Melbourne since 1984, following last year's run, Barty gave up a 5-2 lead in the second set before saving two set points in the tie-break.

Reflecting on Kenin's surprise exit, Barty talked up the standard of the WTA Tour.

"There are no easy matches," said Barty, who next meets 29th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova for a spot in the round of 16. "There are no easy matches in any tour event, any slam, anything. I think every time you walk on the court, you have to try and be able to bring your best tennis to be able to compete with everyone. 

"That's just the level that there is now on the women's side. That's something really exciting about women's tennis now, is that every single match, it's a fair match. You go out there, you play hard, you try to do the best that you can."

 

PLISKOVA AVENGES LOSS, SVITOLINA TOO GOOD FOR GAUFF

Beaten by Danielle Collins in the third round of the Yarra Valley Classic just eight days ago, sixth seed Pliskova got the better of the 2019 Australian Open semi-finalist this time around.

Pliskova - also a semi-finalist at Melbourne Park two years ago - defeated Collins 7-5 6-2 and next plays 25th seed Karolina Muchova.

"I just played better in some moments, which I didn't last week. Then she was not playing that well as she did last week," Czech star Pliskova said. "I knew if I at least maintain little bit, just play at least similar as I was playing last week, I knew it's going to be difficult for her to repeat what she played last week. I think she really played great."

Owning a 6-1 record in the second round at Melbourne Park - falling only at this stage in 2016 - Svitolina produced a mature performance to conquer 16-year-old star Gauff 6-4 6-3 on centre court as 26th seed Yulia Putintseva awaits. 

Elsewhere, seeds Belinda Bencic, Elise Mertens, Anett Kontaveit, Jennifer Brady and Donna Vekic moved through.

One in eight women in the Australian Open draw have already won a grand slam title.

One in eight. It is staggering that of the 128 players who set out in the hope of singles glory at Melbourne Park, there are 16 major champions among them, and perhaps never has it been so difficult to predict who will carry off the title.

Compare it to the men's draw, where there are just five grand slam singles winners, and where you would struggle to make a compelling case for any more than three of those this year, with apologies to Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.

As long-running dynasties near their end on the men's and women's tours, the WTA is a lengthy step ahead of the ATP with a cast of appealing characters already assuming leading roles.

The leader of the pack

Three-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka is at the forefront of a school of rising stars, but she has impressive rivals for company.

The last four years have seen the 15 women's majors won by 12 different players, whereas in the men's game, Rafael Nadal (6), Novak Djokovic (5), Roger Federer (3) and Dominic Thiem (1) have creamed off all the top prizes in the same period.

Often criticised in the past for a perceived lack of depth, in the years when Serena Williams won seemingly at will, the women's tour has exploded with a rush of bright and young talent.

Osaka is a revelation and a leader, on and off the court. Twice a US Open champion now, and a winner in Australia two years ago, the 23-year-old Japanese star took a powerful stance for racial equality at Flushing Meadows back in September, at the height of Black Lives Matter protests. She wants to achieve even more off the court than on it, where she looks assured of one day leaving an impressive legacy.

If there is any area where Osaka's game falls down it is consistency. She has surprisingly not passed the fourth round in 14 of her 17 grand slam appearances, but on every occasion she has gone beyond that stage it has been en route to lifting a trophy.

In hot pursuit

Last year's three slam champions were, at the times of their triumphs, just 21 (Sofia Kenin - Australian Open), 19 (Iga Swiatek - French Open) and 22 (Osaka - US Open).

The women's game has not seen anything comparable in terms of youthful winners of its blue riband tournaments since 2004, when the 21-year-old Justine Henin won in Australia, Anastasia Myskina landed the Roland Garros title at 22, Maria Sharapova was a 17-year-old bolter to Wimbledon glory and 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova scored a stunning Flushing Meadows victory.

Last year does not touch the 1997 season, when a 16-year-old Martina Hingis won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open, denied a grand slam clean sweep by 19-year-old Iva Majoli's shock French Open final win over the Swiss.

But women's tennis is still seeing a remarkable shift to relative youth.

The 2019 season saw a then 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu scoop a stunning US Open win, while Ash Barty took the French Open.

Andreescu has been sidelined with a knee injury since the 2019 WTA Finals, but she is back for Australia, where Queenslander Barty, now 24, is the home hero.

Brace for the prospect of Andreescu and Barty joining Kenin, Swiatek and Osaka in a group of five who can take the women's game boldly into the post-Williams era.

But the Williams era isn't over

This is true, and again Serena will make another attempt to land that elusive 24th grand slam, the one that would move her level with Margaret Court on the all-time list.

She remains, at the age of 39, a magnificent competitor and a beguiling player, as does sister Venus, who turns 41 in June.

Serena has lost her last four grand slam finals, however, and the most recent run to a title match came almost 18 months ago in New York, where Andreescu had her number.

As the new gang of five threaten to pull away from the old establishment, perhaps Williams is now in the next group, along with the likes of Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova: still perfectly capable of winning another slam or even multiple slams, but it feels important to strike now.

Serena has not won any of her last 10 slams, making it the longest span in her professional career without winning a major.

Barty party, or Sofia the second?

Osaka begins the Australian Open as favourite with bookmakers, but world number one Barty will have home support and could make that count. How she performs will be keenly watched, given she chose not to travel once the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, sitting out 11 months.

Should Barty get on a roll, hopes will be high she can become the first Australian woman to take the title since Chris O'Neil in 1978. Last year, Barty fell in the semi-finals to Kenin, and she will be eager to land a second slam title.

Kenin, whose intense concentration and steely resolve helped her pull off last year's shock Melbourne win, and follow up with a run to the French Open final, can be a match for anyone. She will be aiming to become the first woman to win back-to-back Australian Open titles since Azarenka in 2012 and 2013.

Success on this level has come perhaps ahead of schedule for the American, and the same can be said for Swiatek, whose demolition of the field at Roland Garros in October made a mockery of her being ranked number 53 in the world.

The teenage Polish player became her country's first grand slam singles champion, and with that status comes the expectation she will follow it up. How that turns out for her will be one of the most intriguing of sub-plots in the new season.

Changing priorities

Halep said in a recent WTA interview that winning an Olympic medal was her "main goal" for 2021, although Osaka will also have the Tokyo Games firmly circled in her diary.

For the likes of those other players among the 16 slam winners in the Melbourne draw, there will be differing targets this year, too.

Angelique Kerber, Sloane Stephens, Jelena Ostapenko and particularly Garbine Muguruza may yet come good again on the big stage at some point this season.

For Venus Williams, Kuznetsova and Samantha Stosur, it may be a case of one final hurrah.

As the likes of Coco Gauff emerge as potential future big-stage winners, and fledgling ambassadors, the women's game looks in safe hands.

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