Sloane Stephens has had something of a bumpy start to the year.
She was forced to retire from a Hopman Cup match with a wrist injury, an ailment precipitating her withdrawal from the next week's tournament in Sydney.
And when she began at Melbourne Park, she found herself down 5-1 in the opening set of her first round match again Yaroslava Shvedova before staggering back to win.
On Thursday night, Stephens found the going even tougher.
The 13th seed came within a game of packing her bags, but played clutch tennis to eventually subdue relentless 20-year-old Ajla Tomljanovic 3-6 6-2 7-5 and keep her Australian Open 2014 campaign alive.
“I’m so excited to be back here,” said last year’s semifinalist in an on-court interview.
“It was a little shaky for you guys, I’m sorry… but I’m so happy to be back here; thank you for supporting me.
“She just played some really good tennis to get back in the third, and I’m just happy I upped my game … Glad I got the win.”
Stephens mustn’t have known what hit her when she returned to court following a lengthy delay as storms passed over the Melbourne Park precinct.
She had been leading 3-0 in the final set, appearing to have settled into the match and wrested control of the momentum after initially being shocked by Tomljanovic’s power serving – reaching speeds of over 190km/h and averaging 174km/h throughout the match – and heavy, penetrating groundstrokes.
But when the pair returned to Margaret Court Arena, it was the 67th-ranked Croat, not Stephens, who looked the one with the Grand Slam experience and big-match credentials.
Staying true to her aggressive game and playing each point on its merits, Tomljanovic pounded relentlessly from the baseline without erring and whittled away Stephens’ lead. Stephens by no means played badly; an inspired opponent was simply outclassing her.
Scintillating points ensued, with both women trying to land the first strike and running each other ragged around the court. Tomljanovic won the bulk of these, and reeled off five straight games.
Stephens, despite being in dire straits and facing the pressure of defending a hefty swag of semifinal points, remained typically calm.
Steady tennis in the ninth game forced her young opponent to serve for the match, and when receiving in the next game, she mixed power and touch through overhead and drop-shot winners to reach 15-40.
Tomljanovic then double-faulted, the first time she’d put a foot wrong since the match had resumed. It was a costly misstep.
And with scores now locked at 5-5, Stephens must have sensed she’d won the mental battle.
More searching rallies ensued, but now it was the American coming out on top of them, throwing in an ace for good measure to nudge ahead 6-5.
With the atmospheric crowd cheering loudly, Stephens staved off a game point with a forcing running forehand, and a couple of points later, tracked down a ball and pounded a backhand that Tomljanovic couldn’t control.
Ukrainian Elina Svitolina awaits in round three.