NEW YORK, NY, USA - Sloane Stephens' first time playing her home Grand Slam as a legitimate threat was nearly derailed in the first round on Monday, but the American stuck with it, just managing to edge Mandy Minella in a thriller in front of a packed Louis Armstrong Stadium crowd, 46 63 76(5).
Stephens wasn't just fighting her nerves, she was fighting a very unrelenting opponent - Minella was a study in consistency in the first set, keeping the ball deep and into the corners over and over again, drawing 26 unforced errors from Stephens and sneaking out the first set after a long 71 minutes, 6-4.
Stephens tidied up her act in the second set but really had to grind it out in the third, first coming back from 4-2 down to push it to a tie-break, then coming back from 3-1 in that tie-break. And it was getting a little dicey at the end too - Minella staved off Stephens' first two match points, and was close to saving the third as well, but just missed a volley into the net. The match lasted two hours and 48 minutes.
"I got off to a really slow start - I was nervous, tight, hands were shaking, couldn't find my rhythm," Stephens said of the early match struggles. "I thought she also played pretty well in the first set.
"In the second set I tried to get off to a good start, but obviously you're thinking, 'Somebody can't play this well the whole time,' but she really did. So I just kind of had to fight and battle out there.
"In the third set I thought we both played really well. I came out with the win. But I thought she played some awesome tennis the whole time. All credit to her. I thought it was a pretty good match."
Stephens was asked about the nerves afterwards. "I think the whole being here at the US Open is a bit overwhelming," Stephens commented. "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. But it comes with the package. It's exciting to play at a home Slam. It's exciting to be on the court and competing. I have to take advantage of the opportunity that was given to me, and I thought I did that well today."
Do the nerves ease up once a player is out of the first round? Apparently, yes. "I think just the first round of a tournament is always pretty tough, and being at home at a Slam has made it a little bit tougher, but I got through it, and now I can relax and be a little bit more at ease. I think it's good."
Stephens explained what playing at ease feels like. "Just playing my game, hitting out, not being afraid to swing the racquet. Just play my game and just be relaxed and not have to be like, 'Oh my God, I'm holding the racquet and my hand's shaking.' I just want to swing out and be able to swing free."
Her results seem to defy any potential nerves on big stages though - the No.15-seeded Stephens is now an impressive 13-3 at Grand Slams this year, but 17-15 at all of the regular WTA tournaments.
Next up for Stephens is Urszula Radwanska, a 61 63 winner over Irina-Camelia Begu. Radwanska beat Stephens in their only previous meeting, in straight sets earlier this year at Indian Wells.