NEW YORK -- No. 15 Sloane Stephens overcame her nerves and a game opponent to advance to the second round of the U.S. Open, beating No. 110 Mandy Minella of Luxembourg 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5).
Stephens started slowly, looking overwhelmed by the moment and Minella's big hitting. Despite their gap in the rankings, it was Minella who looked more sure of herself and her aggression kept Stephens deep behind the baseline and forced her to rely on her retrieving skills. Fifty-five unforced errors from Stephens (to Minella's 37) didn't help, but after dropping the first set Stephens snapped herself out of her passive funk and got back to being the aggressor.
"I think I was just so nervous, I was so tight, and I couldn't really get a grip," Stephens said after the match.
Playing the U.S. Open as a seeded player for the first time and heavily favored against Minella, Stephens said taking Louis Armstrong Court in front of a big crowd was an adjustment.
"I think normally I'm OK," she said. "But I just think here, [there are] more expectations being seeded, as opposed to last year when I was not seeded. I was, like, 40 in the world, whatever I was ranked. I think now there [are] more eyes on me. Some little things that go with it. But I think overall it's not that bad. But you definitely want to perform well first round of a Grand Slam, especially at home.
"I think just the whole being here at the U.S. Open is a bit overwhelming. 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, 'OK, like, you're a tennis player. That's great.' Here, every person knows who you are. It's definitely overwhelming, but it comes with the package."
Stephens trailed 2-4 in the final set after being broken.
"I just told myself I need to be really aggressive," Stephens said. "The match is going to get away from me if you don't pull yourself together. I think when I give myself a reality check, most of the time it works."
With the partisan crowd firmly behind her -- "Someone yelled to me, 'If you don't get it together, this lady is going to take your second‑round prize money.' I was, like, 'Oh, God'" -- Stephens took a more aggressive tack, particularly on her forehand, and began to swing more freely.
Stephens broke back immediately to get back on serve but fell back yet again in the decisive tiebreaker, trailing 1-3. She won the next five points, thanks to some nervous hitting from Minella, to earn three match points. On her third match point, Stephens showed precisely why it's so easy to get excited about her game. Flashing the speed and anticipation that make her the best mover in the game behind Serena Williams, Stephens chased down a volley wide to her backhand and sliced a perfect sharp-angle reply that Minella put back into the net.
"I think just in the first round of a tournament always is pretty tough," Stephens said, relieved to have survived the match. "Being at home at a Slam I think has made it a little bit tougher. But I got through it, and now I can relax a little bit and be a little bit more at ease. So it's good."