Stephens breathes easier

NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens found out there are worse things than having the top seed and defending champion in your little pocket of the draw. And that’s letting an unseeded player push you out of the US Open on opening day.

It turns out Serena Williams wasn’t the No. 15-seeded Stephens’ biggest issue. Instead, it was Mandy Minella, a relative unknown from Luxembourg. In the final set, Minella’s high-power and high-risk game allowed a more conservative Stephens to hold on for a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) win.

After the match, Stephens admitted she was experiencing nerves, and that her hands were shaking before the match.

“I think just being here at the US Open is a bit overwhelming,” Stephens said. “Literally everywhere you go, every single person knows who you are, as opposed to the French Open or Wimbledon. [There] it’s like, 'OK, you’re a tennis player, that’s great.' Here, every single person knows who you are.”

Stephens has played well enough in the past year to be recognized at her home slam, and deserves the attention she is getting. She defeated Serena Williams at the Australian Open before reaching the semifinal there, and reached the quarterfinal at Wimbledon before losing to eventual champion Marion Bartoli.

With her first-round win, Stephens is still on track to meet fellow American Jamie Hampton, seeded 23rd, in the third round, and then No. 1 Williams in the fourth. But first up is Urszula Radwanska, who also won Monday.

At least Stephens is likely to be able to count on the crowd, including all the would-be coaches in the audience. Monday, one piece of advice yelled out during the match ended up helping her out.

“Today someone yelled to me, ‘If you don’t get it together, this lady is going to take your second-round prize money!’ ” Stephens said. “I was like, 'Oh, god.' I thought that was a good one.”

It was the reality check -- no pun intended -- she needed.