NEW YORK—Fans cramming the very top of Louis Armstrong Stadium clung to the rails as Sloane Stephens dangled on the edge of danger on the court below.
Facing a 2-4 third-set deficit against 110th-ranked Mandy Minella, a skittish Stephens dug in, drew strength from the supportive crowd, and showed survival skills when it mattered most. The No. 15 seed rallied from a 1-3 hole in the final-set tiebreaker to scrape out a 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (5) first-round victory with a major assist from a spirited crowd that pushed the American across the finish line.
A tightly-wound Stephens struggled with her nerves, shot selection, and a tendency to flat-line shots into the net from the outset. She fought off three break points in the nine-minute opening game, then a stubborn Minella staved off four break points in a 12-minute second game.
Winless in five career matches against Top 15 players, Minella began to find the range on her favored forehand and ran off four straight games for a 5-2 lead. Minella converted her fifth set point to snatch the 67-minute opening set as Stephens sprayed successive errors. Things got so bad for Stephens at one point that she dropped to a squat and pounded her palm against the court in physical sign of frustration.
Hitting through her stress, Stephens sprung out to a 3-0 second-set lead and began to hurt Minella by changing direction with her down-the-line backhand. Still, the 27-year-old from Luxembourg kept firing away and competing with more vigor, breaking back for 2-3 and holding for at 30 for 3-3. Stephens’ footwork was sloppy in the opening stages, but she began beating Minella to the ball, winning 12 of the last 17 points of the second set to level the match after one hour and 45 minutes of play.
Stephens’ quickness around the court, her ability to end points with her serve and forehand, and her explosiveness are all qualities that make her special, but she sometimes looked clueless constructing points and committed careless errors with little regard for the score or her court positioning. Minella broke for a 4-2 third-set lead but then netted a forehand, clanked a double fault, and was victimized by a daring drop shot-lob winner combination from Stephens, who won eight of nine points to level the set at 4-all.
“Put the hammer down now, Sloane!” a fan screamed at the start of the tiebreaker, but it was Minella who built a 3-1 lead in the breaker, only to misfire on her forehand. When Stephens slammed a 110 M.P.H. ace down the middle it was 3-all, and the pair changed sides with the crowd rhythmically clapping and chanting “Let’s Go Sloane!”
Minella’s forehand brought her to the brink of her biggest upset, but it failed her with the finish line in sight. She missed successive forehands to face three match points at 3-6; she responded scorching with a forehand winner to erase the first before saving the second on a Stephens backhand error. But on the third, Stephens dipped a cross-court pass that Minella could not handle; her volley died in net ending a dramatic, two-hour and 48-minute struggle.
It was an erratic effort from Stephens, who finished with 38 winners against 55 unforced errors, but made a stand and credited the crowd support for lifting her.
“I was so nervous, so tight,” Stephens told Katrina Adams in her on-court interview in thanking the fans for their assistance. “Goodness, I just wanted to play more freely. You guys helped me out a lot today and I really appreciate it.”
IBM Stat of the Match: Minella converted only four of 15 break points.
IBM is a proud sponsor and official technology partner of the U.S. Open. For more information on this match, visit IBM's SlamTracker.