NEW YORK - A year ago Sloane Stephens was unseeded, unnoticed and under the US Open radar. Not this year. This year, the 25-year-old American could not be drawing more attention if she pulled up to the gates of Flushing Meadows in a pink Cadillac, fireworks shooting from the exhaust and rock music screaming from the stereo.
Winning a Grand Slam will do that to a virtual unknown, and Stephens was under the microscope on Monday as she began her title defence on a steamy Louis Armstrong Stadium court with a 6-1 7-5 win over 80th ranked Russian Evgeniya Rodina.
"I'm really happy, it's not downhill from here but it's good to get through that first day," said Stephens, who will next meet Ukraine's unseeded Anhelina Kalinina. "First round of a Grand Slam is super tough, especially as defending champion. I was a little bit nervous. I think obviously it's never easy as an American playing in the US Open."
Last year it was Stephens, an unthreathening 83 in the rankings, playing the 2016 finalist Roberta Vinci in a first round match that went largely unnoticed by the opening day crowd. A second round victory over 11th seed Dominika Cibulkova raised few eyebrows and it wasn't until a semi-final victory over Venus Williams that people finally began to take notice.
The fairytale run climaxed in spectacular fashion with Stephens thumping compatriot Madison Keys in the final, becoming just the fifth unseeded player in the professional era to win a grand slam. Despite a US Open title, it has not often been smooth sailing at Flushing Meadows.