Second set: *Stephens 6-3, 3-3 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
But no sooner does Azarenka break than she is in danger of being broken. 0-40. She saves the first two break points – and then the third with a volley that clips the sideline. Azarenka looks mightily relieved when Hawk-Eye confirms it was in. Deuce. Advantage Stephens after another extended rally. A Stephens error and it’s back to deuce. Daniela Hantuchova, on the Amazon Prime commentary, reckons this is the highest quality match of the women’s draw so far. Azarenka digs deep to hold and get back on level terms in this set.
Second set: Stephens 6-3, 3-2 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Two results to bring you: the 15th seed Elise Mertens has come through a second-set tie-break 7-4 to defeat the Czech Barbora Strycova 6-3, 7-6 in an entertaining match, by all accounts. Mertens awaits the winner of Stephens v Azarenka. And the 19th seed Anastasija Sevastova, a US Open quarter-finalist in 2016 and 2017, has beaten Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, closing it out with a perfect drop shot. And just as I’m watching that, Azarenka breaks back! Stephens’s service level has dropped a little in this set and the American gives Azarenka a lifeline in this match with a double fault on break point.
Second set: *Stephens 6-3, 3-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
At 15-all, some thoughtful play from Azarenka as she puts in a high ball and comes to the net, forcing Stephens to go wide with the lob. 30-15. 40-15. The fifth point is as good as the third, and Stephens settles matters with a forehand volley. She’s looking so calm and composed out there. 40-30. A mis-hit return from Stephens and it’s deuce. Azarenka looks unimpressed. She looks even more unimpressed when it’s break point. And is furious with herself when Stephens breaks. The defending champion is now a set and a break to the good.
Second set: Stephens 6-3, 2-1 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
That may be about to change when a wonderful volley on the stretch gets Azarenka to deuce. And three points later it’s break point at Azarenka’s advantage. It’s a rare miss of the first serve from Stephens but the American lands the second. At the end of a long rally the pair exchange cross-court backhands with the angle getting more extreme, Azarenka tries to go down the line but hits out. Deuce. Stephens steadies herself to hold.
Second set: *Stephens 6-3, 1-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
An energy-sapping second point on Azarenka’s serve. Stephens eventually nets. Azarenka screams and fist pumps, roaring herself into further action despite her exertions. It works. 40-0. Game, when Stephens overcooks a backhand. But Azarenka, apart from that break point in game six of the first set, has not yet been able to make inroads into Stephens’s serve …
Second set: Stephens 6-3, 1-0 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
Stephens is not only the defending champion, she’s also the highest seed left in the women’s draw, at No 3, after Caroline Wozniacki’s exit last night. I wonder if Wozniacki is sipping some actual margaritas rather than some imaginary ones right now. But back to the match, where Stephens is sticking to the first-set script at the start of the second. She holds to 30.
Stephens wins the first set 6-3
Stephens is serving superbly and has missed only one first serve in 20 so far, with her percentage at 95%. Another four first serves help her take the game to 15. But it’s not only her serve that is firing today; her groundstrokes and movement is looking so secure too. Stephens has so much to her game. She’s one of the best movers, has great balance and so much natural power. When she puts all this together and it’s functioning, she’s a phenomenal player. It’s certainly clicking here, as she brings up a triple set point at 0-40 on Azarenka’s serve … and Azarenka nets! Stephens is looking strong.
First set: *Stephens 4-3 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Azarenka is trying to interrupt Stephens’s rhythm by throwing in a few moon balls and coming to the net, the right idea but the execution isn’t quite there. 15-30. Stephens lets Azarenka off the hook with a loose shot for 30-all, and Azarenka then drills a backhand down the line, taking it early with the ball on the rise. 40-30. Game.
First set: Stephens 4-2 Azarenka* (*denotes next server)
The winner here is most likely to play the 15th seed Elise Mertens in the last 16. The efficient if slightly unspectacular Belgian is efficiently taking care of business against Barbora Strycova, leading 6-3, 4-3 with the break. Back on Ashe, Azarenka, with the wind in her sails after that love hold in the previous game, has a break point at 30-40. But that’s a bad miss on the backhand. Deuce. From there, Stephens survives.
First set: *Stephens 3-2 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
The weather in New York is much cooler today but that’s about the only respite Azarenka is getting, because Stephens is making this a fairly unpleasant experience for the Belarusian. Stephens, with one foot on Azarenka’s throat, charges through on serve. But suddenly Azarenka wriggles free. The former No 1 holds to love for the first time and must now build on that after the changeover.
First set: *Stephens 2-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Stephens sprints to 40-0, before overhitting a forehand for 40-15. She does a little practice swing at the back of the court – remember the shot clock, Sloane! – but it does the trick and she secures the hold on the next point. Stephens, such a superb athlete, perhaps has a bit more of a spring in her step than Azarenka, and the American is asking questions of Azarenka’s serve once more at 0-30. But she then batters a backhand into the net. Make that two battered backhands into the net. 30-all. 30-40, break point, courtesy of a 90mph forehand from Stephens. And Azarenka very generously gifts Stephens the first break of the match with a double fault!
First set: *Stephens 0-1 Azarenka (*denotes next server)
Azarenka steps up to serve first – and already they’re having to put in the hard yards. A 13-shot rally and Azarenka is victorious. A couple of quicker points and it’s 30-15. An errant backhand from Azarenka – which skids well into the tramlines – and it’s 30-all. Stephens steps forward to put a forehand into a wide open space for break point. A “COME ON” from Azarenka as she saves it and gets herself to deuce. And from there the Belarusian holds.
So this is a match between two grand slam champions, with Stephens the defending champion in New York and Azarenka winning the Australian Open in 2012 and 2013, as well as reaching the US Open final in both of those years.
Stephens has been inconsistent in the opening two rounds, which sums up her season too. The American reached the French Open final and won the Miami title but also suffered first-round exits at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. Azarenka’s year, meanwhile, seems to be on an upward trajectory. The former world No 1 is playing with a weight off her shoulders, after the resolution of a custody battle that meant she couldn’t take her son out of California. Serena Williams may be generating most of the headlines as a returning mother here – but Azarenka is making her mark too.
Stephens beat Azarenka in three sets at Indian Wells and also in Miami this year but Azarenka is in a much better place now and has looked very sharp so far. If Stephens plays like she did in the second round, she could be out.
Here they come, making their way through the Arthur Ashe corridors. Stephens has a microphone shoved in her face before walking on to court. “[The second round] kinda got me going. I’m just looking forward to playing again. Just go out, execute, have fun, play my game, enjoy it.” Take from that what you will …
The clock strikes midday in NYC, so Sloane Stephens and Victoria Azarenka will be on court very shortly. It’s much cooler today, by the way, with a high of around 25C forecast. It’s breezier and there could even be the first rain of the tournament later. But given there are roofs on Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong, most of the singles matches are protected.
Recommended viewing: In case you missed it the other day, here’s a lovely gallery of 40 years of the US Open at Flushing Meadows, which includes some pictures of Serena and Venus’s early years at the tournament.
Meanwhile we’re hearing that the umpire concerned, Mohamed Lahyani, will not face any action from the USTA and will continue to officiate during this tournament. A spokesman has said Lahyani went “beyond protocol” by getting out of his seat to encourage Kyrgios but that he will not be sanctioned on account of his “exemplary track record as an international tennis official”.
Friday’s order of play (singles)
Arthur Ashe Stadium
Day session (12pm ET/5pm UK)
Sloane Stephens (USA)  vs Victoria Azarenk (Blr)
Rafael Nadal (Spa)  vs Karen Khachanov (Rus) 
Night session (7pm ET/12am UK)
Serena Williams (USA)  vs Venus Williams (USA) 
Juan Martin del Potro (Arg)  vs Fernando Verdasco (Spa) 
Louis Armstrong Stadium
Day session (11am ET/4pm UK)
Barbora Strycova (Cze)  vs Elise Mertens (Bel) 
Wang Qiang (Chi) vs Elina Svitolina (Ukr) 
Denis Shapovalov (Can)  vs Kevin Anderson (RSA) 
Night session (7pm ET/12am UK)
Milos Raonic (Can)  vs Stan Wawrinka (Sui)
Sofia Kenin (USA) vs Karolina Pliskova (Cze) 
(11am ET/4pm UK)
Ekaterina Makarova (Rus) vs Anastasija Sevastova (Lat) 
Dominic Thiem (Aut)  vs Taylor Fritz (USA)
John Isner (USA)  vs Dusan Lajovic (Srb)
Karolina Muchova (Cze) vs Ashleigh Barty (Aus) 
(11am ET/4pm UK)
Feliciano Lopez (Esp) and Marc Lopez (Esp)  v Christian Harrison (USA) and Ryan Harrison (USA)
Nikoloz Basilashvili (Geo) v Guido Pella (Arg)
Kaia Kanepi (Est) v Rebecca Peterson (Swe)
Borna Coric (Cro)  v Daniil Medvedev (Rus)
Serena and Venus Williams first played each other on tour in the second round of the 1998 Australian Open, with Venus beating her younger sister 7-6, 6-1. Their dreams and proclamations were, of course, already big, fuelled by their father, who for many years had told them – and the world – that they would be the best two players on the planet. But surely not even he, or a 16-year-old Serena or 17-year-old Venus, could have imagined that 20 years, 29 meetings and a combined 30 grand slam titles later, with the sisters boasting a collective age of 74, that they’d still be battling it out against each other at a slam.
The Williamses’ headline act under the lights tonight makes what comes before it on Arthur Ashe feel like a warm-up, even though the two defending champions are both playing in the afternoon session. Sloane Stephens will need to be at her best against the rejuvenated former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka, while Rafael Nadal faces his first real test of the tournament against the rising Russian Karen Khachanov.
Nadal isn’t the only 30-something to be pitted against a Next Gen talent, with the man he beat in last year’s final, Kevin Anderson, playing Denis Shapovalov on Louis Armstrong. That’s where the 2016 champion Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic will meet too. Other names in third-round action include John Isner, the French Open runner-up Dominic Thiem, the former finalist Karolina Pliskova, the seventh seed Elina Svitolina and the Australian No 1 Ashleigh Barty. And let’s not forget Daniil Medvedev v Borna Coric and the battle of the forehands between Juan Martin del Potro and Fernando Verdasco, which follows Williams v Williams XXX on Ashe.
Play begins on Arthur Ashe at: 12pm ET/5pm BST.
Play on the other courts: is already under way. Belgium’s Elise Mertens has an early break, 3-1, against the Czech Barbora Strycova, while Ekaterina Makarova, who defeated the Wimbledon semi-finalist Julia Goerges in round two, leads Latvia’s Anastasija Sevastova 4-2.