This is a match the previous version of Sabalenka – before she became a Grand Slam winner – might have folded in. Not on this night.
Sabalenka withstood a roller-coaster first and then fended off another Stephens rally in set two, winning 7-6(5), 6-4, to advance to her first-ever Roland-Garros quarter-final.
“It was a crazy match,” a wide-smiling Sabalenka said afterwards.
Calmer Aryna remains a work-in-progress
There are still two versions of Sabalenka under the surface: A clear-headed and clean-hitting one, and another that can lose her rhythm – in an instant.
The first set showcased that, Sabalenka reeling off seven winners in those five first games against a shell-shocked Stephens. She’d then hit double that tally of unforced errors – 14! – over the next five games, undone by a more engaged American, but also by a penchant of going for too much too soon in rallies.
It’s an aspect of her game she’s spoken openly about improving: She’s one of the biggest hitters in the game, but after five years of being a “contender” at the majors, the Australian Open title this January changed that in her for the better.