NEW YORK (Reuters) - A year ago Sloane Stephens was unseeded, unnoticed and under the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Open title, it has not often been smooth sailing at Flushing Meadows.
The year before capturing her first Grand Slam, Stephens fell in the first round to Coco Vandeweghe, the year before that she made a second round exit.
She also dropped out three times in qualifying.
But there was no danger of that on Monday even if the fans at the newly renovated Louis Armstrong stadium gave Stephens as much trouble as her Russian opponent.
“I think obviously playing on a court that’s very loud, there’s a lot going on, I think it makes it a little bit tough to kind of, like, settle down,” said Stephens.
“It was just loud.
“There was a lot going on between the airplanes and the subway behind the court, the concessions being in the lower bowl, and people walking in the games at, like, two-all, three-all. There’s just a lot going on.
“It was fun to play first day on a brand new stadium court but there was a lot happening.”
Editing by Ian Ransom