Big things are expected of Sloane Stephens at the US Open this coming fortnight, but the Floridian got off to an uninspiring start as she struggled to overcome Luxemburg’s Mandy Minella in the first round at Flushing Meadow.
Her 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 victory will have been a frustration to her. Some inspiring tennis which gave a glimpse of the potential being talked about was punctuated with unforced errors which belied her number 15 seed ranking. Her impressive run to the quarter finals at Wimbledon looked some time away.
Ever since she beat compatriot Serena Williams in the Australian Open at the turn of the year, Stephens' profile has rocketed. Her defeat to Victoria Azarenka which followed in Melbourne would have taught her more about herself than the victory against Williams, and she needed to dig deep to see of a spirited challenge from Minella who will have been equally frustrated at not taking the chances presented to her after taking the first set.
Stephens now takes on Urszula Radwanska, the younger sister of world number 4 Agnieszka in what will be an equally testing match. Radwanska cruised through her first round tie 6-1, 6-3 against Romanian Irina-Camelia Begu and will see Stephens as a beatable opponent.
The grit and determination Stephens showed can not be questioned, but her execution will need some serious work before her second round game. Her opponent will be fresher and if there are anywhere near the 55 unforced errors there were in her first round game, it will the Pole who advances.
There were of course some positives Stephens can take from the victory. The two hours and 45 minutes court time is invaluable experience and, in a match which was also interrupted because of the rain, the mentality shown to when not performing to her best will have been encouraging.
The signs are there that the 20-year-old can go further than she has before at the Open, where she has never been past the third round. A victory against Radwanska could see her face fellow American Jamie Hampton in the third round, with the winner of that tie almost certainly facing Serena Williams in the fourth round.
For Sloane Stephens, that fourth round tie is what she should be targeting, and while Serena is still number one seed, and she was injured in Melbourne when Stephens triumphed against her last time out, Stephens will certainly take inspiration from that match.
An improvement is certainly needed, but the best players win their matches and improve as the tournament progresses. There shouldn’t be the nerves and the excitement which affected her during the first match, and some All American games really get the New York crowd going.
This year's Open already has a feeling that the top four seeds can be beaten. Sloane Stephens has the potential to gate crash proceedings to devastating effect.
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