Sloane Stephens arrives at the 2018 US Open as the reigning champion and third seed, the highest seeding of her Grand Slam career to date. The 25-year-old broke through for her maiden Grand Slam victory this time last year, beating fellow American Madison Keys with ease in the final. This year, she begins her campaign against world #81 Evgeniya Rodina of Russia and will surely have plenty of confidence. But Rodina has caused shocks in the past. Who will come out on top?
Though they have both been on the WTA Tour for a number of years, these two have only come up against one another on a solitary occasion, way back in 2011 in the Sony Ericsson Open qualifiers. At the time, Stephens was a long way from the player she is today, barely ranked inside the top 100, much like Rodina. As a result, the match was a close one, with Stephens getting over the line in three tight sets. After dropping the first set, she fought back to win 6-3 4-6 3-6.
Last time out
Stephens’ last tournament was in Cincinnati a couple of weeks ago, where she made it through to the third round after a first-round bye and a straight sets second round victory over Tatjana Maria. Following that, however, she was bundled out in two sets by Elise Mertens. A week before Cincinnati, Stephens had a good run in Montreal, making it through to the final before losing to world #1 Simona Halep 6-7 6-3 4-6.
Rodina also played in Cincinnati, but unlike Stephens she was unable to progress past the first round, losing there to world #63 Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan. She had a couple of weeks off before that, having not played since the Moscow River Cup in late July. At that event, she eased past world #172 Paula Badosa Gibert in straight sets, but was dismissed by Kvitova's Wimbledon conqueror Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
How do they match up?
This match won’t be punctuated by hard-hitting, with both of these players possessing relatively passive game styles, and relying largely on their ability to cover the court. Stephens, unsurprisingly given the gap between them in the rankings, does this much better, and can counter some of the most powerful players in the world. When required, she is also capable of loading up on her groundstrokes, particularly on her forehand side.
Against Rodina, whose lack of power has held her back throughout her career and prevented her from breaking into the world's top 70, expect Stephens to step in and dictate more than she would against most opponents. Rodina’s serve in particular can be underwhelming, and as a result Stephens will probably be looking to get on the front foot when receiving. Aggressive returning rewarded Serena Williams at Wimbledon against Rodina and should do the same for Stephens.
Stephens dispelled many negative perceptions about her game when she won this tournament last year, and as the reigning champion she will be expecting to get through this match against the little-known Rodina easily. Rodina is not a bad player, as she showed when she made it through to the round of 16 earlier this year at Wimbledon, but it would be a surprise to see her pose much of a challenge in this match. Stephens will win this in straight sets.