Defending champion Stephens shows her steel

 - Simon Cambers

The American has built on her win here 12 months ago and looks tough to beat again

Sloane Stephens in the second round of the US Open 2018

There have been plenty of times during the career of Sloane Stephens when, faced with the two-pronged problem of an inspired, unknown opponent, and the kind of searing heat that makes your feet hurt, she might have thrown in the towel.

But the Stephens of 2018 is made of sterner stuff, a foundation that began with her victory here 12 months ago, a win few people predicted as she returned from an 11-month break because of injury, ranked 83.

“A tough day, obviously"

A year on and the 25-year-old is the No 3 seed, with an added steel in her game. So close to winning a second grand slam at Roland Garros this summer, where she lost in three sets to Simona Halep, the American showed belief and fighting spirit, just when she needed it most.

On Wednesday, Stephens recovered from a set down to record a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2 win over Anhelina Kalinina, a Ukrainian qualifier ranked 134, and move on to the third round.

“It was a tough day, obviously,” Stephens said, after a match that lasted two hours, 46 minutes, played right in the middle of the day. “She was playing really well, playing four matches already, qualies here, used to the conditions.”

“I just kind of had to weather the storm and wait for my opportunities. Obviously I wish I could have been playing a little bit better. That would have helped the situation. But I just found a way today, and sometimes it's not going to be the best, but you've just got to battle through.”

Slone Stephens surprised at the US Open 2017 posing with the trophy.©Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
Switch from being the hunter to the hunted

Kalinina was the runner-up in the junior event in 2014 but few people inside Arthur Ashe Stadium would have known too much about her, Stephens included.

“I literally had never seen her before,” Stephens said. “So when I walked on court, I was, like, OK, that's who that is. Obviously a bit different.

“She's playing with a lot of confidence, played four matches already. That helps raise your game a little bit. Like I said, (I had to) just try to go out there and do my best with all the things that were happening.”

Stepping out on court at any of the grand slams as the defending champion must be a special feeling, but when it is in your home slam, the feelings are enhanced.

In the past, Stephens has shied away from the attention, finding the extra demands on her time a little burdensome. But it’s the switch from being the hunter to the hunted which is the hardest to cope with.

A bit nervous

“Obviously, in my first-round match, I was nervous,” she said. “Today, I was a bit nervous. Different elements, playing someone you've never seen play before or seen what they look like, it's a little bit different, a little bit tough. I think nervous in general I guess getting back on Ashe for the first time. I was a little uneasy.”

Having recovered from 4-1 down in the first set to level at 4-4, it looked as if she would take the opener but Kalinina continued to go after the ball, her backhand a real weapon, and she snatched the set to go ahead.

Stephens hit back well in the second but having gone up 5-3, couldn’t serve out for the set as Kalinina battled. The American broke in the next game, though, and closed out the set at the second time of asking.

Blockbuster battle vs Azarenka

A 10-minute break before the start of the third set, under the heat rule instigated for a second straight day, helped refresh both players but after two long games, Stephens got the vital break for 2-1.

This time she was not to be denied and she eased away to set up an blockbuster third-round battle with Victoria Azarenka, the former world No 1.  

“I think it will be a good match,” Stephens said. “She's playing with a bit of confidence and so am I. Third round of a grand slam is always tough. Just got to go out there and compete and play your hardest and see what happens.”