Rogers Cup fans got a glimpse of what’s been touted as the next big thing in American tennis for some time.
Sloane Stephens debuted at the women’s tournament Monday with a 6-2, 7-6(5) victory over France’s Kristina Mladenovic in the opening round.
The world No. 17-ranked Stephens has been labelled the natural successor to Serena and Venus Williams in the American women’s game. This year she’s proving why, with a semifinal showing at the Australian Open and quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon.
Stephens insists she doesn’t let the hype affect her game.
“Obviously most of the attention I get is pretty positive,” said Stephens. “It’s because people want to see me do well and I’m American and that’s awesome, but I mean there’s a little downfall of that too. There is a lot of pressure ... and things like that.
“You just have to deal with it and play hard and imagine what (Andy) Murray deals with in England and what Serena has dealt with for so many years. It’s definitely tough but people have done it before.”
The 20-year-old Stephens battled back from down 5-3 in the second set to win the match in 90 minutes, 40 seconds.
She looked strong from the first game as she broke Mladenovic twice to jump out to a 3-0 lead. The No. 39-ranked Frenchwoman tried to play aggressive by attacking the net, but Stephens blew a forehand by her to make it 4-0.
“She comes in a lot and volleys really well,” said Stephens. “I knew probably she was going to press a little and make me play more balls. But I tried to stay with it and hit a lot of angles and move her and it seemed to work.”
Mladenovic had a chance to break and make it 4-2 but returned the ball long, then wide before Stephens reversed momentum to win the game and pull ahead 5-1.
Mladenovic appeared en route to forcing a third set with a 5-3 lead in the second, but Stephens won three straight games before closing out the match in a tiebreak.
“She upped her game a lot in the second set,” said Stephens. “Some nights it’s going to be up and down, but I thought I stayed pretty solid and got through it.”
Stephens will next face Germany’s Mona Barthel, who advanced with a 6-7(3), 6-3, 7-6(1) win over China’s Jie Zheng.
Carol Zhao, meanwhile, became the first Canadian ousted from the tournament’s main draw. The 18-year-old qualifier from nearby Richmond Hill, Ont., lost 6-1, 6-3 to Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Zhao, making her first appearance in the Rogers Cup main draw, looked overpowered by the Russian in the first set but fought back for a 3-0 lead in the second.
“I think I just tried to simplify my game plan (in the second set), and I think it rattled her a little bit,” said Zhao. “I think the next step for me is trying to maintain that level of play for a longer period of time.”
Pavlyuchenkova rallied back to make it 4-3 before winning the match on serve. She’ll meet four-seed Li Na of China in the second round.
Zhao says the experience of playing her first Rogers Cup will be a lasting memory.
“I think there is nothing really like coming to play the Rogers Cup. This is a tournament I grew up watching,” said Zhao. “Getting an opportunity to play in the main draw is a dream come true.”
Most of the pre-tournament buzz has been around her fellow Canadian Eugenie Bouchard who won in doubles on Monday with partner Kirsten Flipkens of Germany. The duo beat Oksana Kalashnikova and Alicja Rosolska 4-6, 6-3, 10-7.
Bouchard, a Westmount, Que., native who is the main draw on a wild card, will play her first singles match on Tuesday night against Russia’s Alisa Kleybanova. Bouchard turned heads at Wimbledon this year when she advanced to the third round with victory over former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic.
Flavia Pennetta and Yanina Wickmayer were among the early winners in Monday’s opening round.
Pennetta of Italy became the first player through to the second round after she eliminated Urszula Radwanska 6-3, 3-6, 6-2, while Belgium’s Wickmayer ousted American Bethanie Mattek-Sands 6-4, 2-6, 6-4.
Mattek-Sands was called upon shortly before the match after Britain’s Laura Robson pulled out with a right wrist injury. Known for her eye-catching fashion sense, Mattek-Sands sported black socks and wrist bands with a streak of green in her blonde hair.
The world No. 32-ranked Robson — set to make her Rogers Cup debut — joins a list of injured players who withdrew from the tournament, including top-5 seeds Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.
Robson was coming off a strong performance at Wimbledon where she reached the fourth round — the first British woman to do it since 1998.
In other early results Monday, Dominika Cibulkova knocked off fellow Slovakian Jana Cepelova 7-5, 6-4; Romania’s Sorana Cirstea moved on with a 6-2, 6-3 win over Ukrainian qualifier Olga Savchuk; 10-seed Roberta Vinci of Italy beat Germany’s Julia Goerges 2-6, 6-4, 6-3; Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands defeated American Alison Riske 6-4, 1-6, 6-3; Varvara Lepchenko of the U.S. won 6-3, 6-1 over Ayumi Morita of Japan; and Klara Zakopalova was a 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 winner over fellow Czech Lucie Safarova.