When Sloane Stephens won the US Open in 2017 it seemed as if she would go on to establish herself as a serial champion, someone with the ability to rack up numerous grand slam titles. Four years on, and after a slump in form and some difficult times in her personal life, the American showed her talent is undimmed with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the two-times former champion Petra Kvitova in the first round.
Returning aggressively and maintaining her focus when down four break points in the second set, Stephens held on to clinch what was only her second win over a Top 10 opponent in three years.
“I knew that I had to fight for every ball and make sure that I got my racket on a lot of those balls,” she said.
“I did that super well today. Instead of being super passive, I was super aggressive on the returns. I was trying to make her play and be on her back foot. Obviously she likes to play super aggressive and inside the court. I knew I needed to play first-ball tennis and I did that pretty well today, which is good.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has been especially hard on Stephens, who lost an aunt, a grandmother and a grandfather to the virus. Her motivation disappeared and between the US Open of 2020 and Charleston in April, she won just two matches.
But there were strong hints in Paris, where she reached the fourth round of the French Open, that she was finding her game again and despite dropping serve in the opening game against Kvitova, she denied the 2011 and 2014 champion room to play her normal game.
“When you are trying to work your way back, I think a lot of it is just being positive and knowing that you’ve been at a certain level before and trying to get back there,” she said. “I think for me the biggest thing was feeling good on the court, feeling like I’m competing in matches.
“After the French [Open] I felt good. I felt like I was competing better. Even though obviously it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, I was just feeling more like myself on court. Coming here, trying to take that confidence and translate it into good form and good tennis. Obviously playing against Petra, you have to bring your A game. I thought I played really well today. I’m just trying to keep the momentum going, trying to find that good, consistent level again.”
Kvitova, always a favourite with the crowd, said she was unable to find her best form when she needed it. “It was a tough first round, for sure,” the Czech said. “I felt that I do have ability to win the match. I just didn’t find the best for me today. It was really tough. I just didn’t play the best. I think that she played really solid. She was just better today.”
Second seed Aryna Sabalenka, still trying to translate her WTA Tour form into the grand slams, blitzed Monica Nicolescu of Romania 6-1, 6-4 while last year’s French Open champion, No 7 seed Iga Swiatek, saw off Hsieh Su-wei of Taiwan 6-4, 6-4.
Fourth seed Sofia Kenin cruised through with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Wang Xinyu of China while former champion Garbine Muguruza produced perhaps the most impressive performance as she blasted France’s Fiona Ferro off the court 6-0, 6-1 in just 50 minutes.
Muguruza, champion here in 2016 and a winner at Roland Garros the following year, says she’s now playing with more freedom, something that might just make her dangerous over the next fortnight.
“I don’t feel really the pressure,” she said. “I don’t feel I have to prove nothing no more. I have played well here. I’m excited to be back. Every year is really, let’s see how far can I go in Wimbledon, how many matches can I get on grass court?
“I stopped feeling this kind of pressure of having to prove (anything), having to show someone or the world that I have to perform well or anything. I have been through that, and now I feel more calm, just doing my thing.”