Inspired by crowd, Sloane Stephens survives tough first-round opponent
Sloane Stephens' U.S. Open was on the line, and it was only the first day. It's been an impressive Grand Slam year for the 20-year-old American, but it was about to get really depressing if she didn't get herself together in a hurry.
She was down a set to Mandy Minella, a player from Luxembourg ranked No. 110 in the world. Then she lost a break she had earned early in the second set. Time, she said, for a reality check.
And the reality this season has been that she has played her best in the tough matches. So this first-round match took on the urgency of one in the second week of a major, and with a swelling, vociferous crowd at Armstrong Stadium behind her, she clawed out a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory.
"I got off to a really slow start, was nervous, tight, hands were shaking, couldn't find rhythm," said Stephens, the 15th seed and ranked 17th in the world. "Second set, I tried to get off to a good start, but you're thinking somebody can't play this well the whole time, but she did. I just had to fight and battle . . . I think I was just so nervous, so tight and I couldn't get a grip."
But she had some help. It wasn't enough that the crowd was at full throat, they took over her coaching, hollering out instructions that her real coach isn't allowed to do. "Like being at home, it's definitely a completely different feeling than being at any other tournament," Stephens said. "I think people really get behind you. Like today, it helped tremendously."
"I have 75 different coaches out there," she said. "Because people are screaming like, 'Hit the ball, hit it to her forehand, serve to her backhand, come to net.' You're just like, 'Oh, goodness.' I mean it's tricky, but I think most of the time it's all positive."
Stephens has spoken this season of the pressure she is facing as a rising star. There is a huge picture of her on an advertising billboard here and there are few tennis fans who don't know her by now.
That visibility was ramped up considerably when she beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open at the start of the season. She made the semis there, the quarters at Wimbledon. But being at home is a different ballgame.
"I just think being here at the U.S. Open is a bit overwhelming," Stephens said. "Literally everywhere you go, every single person knows who you are, as opposed to when you're at the French Open or when you're at Wimbledon.
"It's definitely overwhelming, but it comes with the package. It's exciting to play at a home slam. I think I have to take advantage of the opportunity that was given to me, and I thought I did that well today."
Down 4-2 in the third set, fighting back to gain the tiebreak, down 3-1 in the tiebreak and then fighting back to win, Stephens knows she won more than a match.
"I think now there are more eyes on me," she said.
Now, there will be more.