By Nick McCarvel | Aug. 25, 2018, 11:41 a.m. (ET)
Sloane Stephens returns a shot at the Western and Southern Open on Aug. 16, 2018 in Mason, Ohio.

 

NEW YORK -- What a difference a year makes.

It was 12 months ago that American Sloane Stephens would stride onto the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center for the US Open with few expectations. After all, she had been out of the game for nine months before making a comeback in the summer hardcourt series. 

Her last true event prior to that had been the Olympic Games Rio 2016. 

"I just was happy to be on the court the last couple of weeks, just enjoying playing," Stephens told reporters after her first-round match, a win over former finalist Roberta Vinci of Italy in two sets. "[I'm] happy to be injury-free and pain-free, all that good stuff. I didn't really have any expectations coming back." 

"I just wanted to play again."

What Stephens would do over the next two weeks in Flushing Meadows, Queens, wasn't just playing tennis – she would master the field. Ranked No. 957 weeks before and coming off her nine months away due to an Achilles injury, the Los Angeleno would become the first American woman not named Williams to hoist the winner's trophy inside Arthur Ashe Stadium since Lindsay Davenport in 1998. 

Her already expressive eyes nearly popped out of her head when she saw the winner's check for some $3.7 million, too. 

Except, for Stephens, the smile faded quickly in the coming weeks after her historic triumph. She'd lose all six of her remaining matches on the year. Beginning this season, she'd fall in her first two, as well, and offered frank frustration with her slump in form post maiden-Slam win. "It's just unfortunate," she said after her Australian Open exit.

But just like she had the summer prior, Stephens found her game on her own terms. She won her first match of the season in Acapulco, Mexico, in February, then won the title in Miami and helped the U.S. back to the Fed Cup final with two important singles wins. Much like last late August in New York, no one expected Sloane to make a deep run at the French Open. Then she did.

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While Stephens finished runner-up to sentimental favorite Simona Halep of Romania at Roland-Garros, her run there reminded everyone of this: No one in the women's game – save for the one and only Serena Williams – is as dangerous on the court when she really wants to as Stephens. She moves impeccably well, generates gargantuan pace, has a whizzing, whipping serve and appears to – now at 25 – have a full understanding as to how to manage her expectations and the pressure around her in the big moments.

That makes her as lethal as ever.

"Sloane is playing unbelievable, and she's playing the same form that she played last year's US Open," the legendary Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion, said on a conference call this week. "I think she's got confidence. She's just – she is a more confident player, which I think is going to help her. The only thing that will be against Sloane is the pressure of having to defend, and that always remains to be seen how the player reacts to that."

It's an interesting point: How will Stephens react? She was lethargic and uninspired in the first round of Wimbledon, losing out to big-hitting Croatian Donna Vekic just a few weeks after her dash to the French Open final. Her heart wasn't in it at the All England Club. And she needs her heart to play her best tennis.

That's why it was so jarring – and inspiring to Stephens fans – to see her reaction after falling to Halep once again in the Montreal final just a few weeks ago. She openly cried, tears streaming down her face during the trophy ceremony. She just wanted to play again – but this time to win. 

"[It's] obviously upsetting that I didn't win," Stephens would say after that final. "But I think I got better today... I got better than [the French Open] final we played. It's disappointing, but I think this will help me moving forward, getting ready to go to the US Open."

While the tennis spotlight is sure to shine brightly on Stephens in the coming days, the media frenzy around Serena Williams – playing the US Open a year after giving birth to daughter Olympia – will be out of this world. In a way, Stephens can float under the radar, which she openly spoke about in Paris as being her preferred method.

But she won't be able to escape it, either. She's the defending champ, an American, a sponsor-laden superstar. Her life has changed astronomically since she strolled onto that court against Vinci in last year's round one. And she appears to be learning at every step.

Stephens will open the tournament in the coming days against Evgeniya Rodina, a Russian veteran who recently made the fourth round at Wimbledon, where she bowed out to fellow mom Williams. Stephens and Rodina have never played.

What looms is a third-round encounter with another mother in Belarus’ Victoria Azarenka, the former world No. 1, as well as a quarterfinal clash with Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, the No. 7 seed.

Perhaps most important for Stephens is that first match, however, as the weight of expectation hurled onto the defending champion's shoulders is also heavy. Especially at a major in your home country.

"She's still a little bit of a nervous player," Evert said of Stephens on that media call. "I think that's one area she's improved tremendously. I have faith in her ability. I have faith in how mentally tough she's gotten. If she can get the crowd on her side and be inspired, I think she can win this tournament. But it all depends on Sloane... [and] how she reacts to the pressure."

Stephens appeared relaxed Thursday at the US Open draw ceremony, where she appeared alongside defending men's champion Rafael Nadal. When prompted by the hosts about her first-round match, she bristled... with a smile.

"I don't want to know who I play," Stephens said, flashing that now-famous smile. "I know it's weird but... not at least for 48 hours. I can't go on Twitter or Instagram or anything."

So don't tell Stephens who she plays – or who she might play in a couple rounds' time. But also don't tell her that she's the defending champ, the No. 3 seed and – according to Evert and many others inside this sport – a pick to win the tournament.

She actually knows that deep down. And that's another reason to watch what transpires over the next two weeks for Sloane Stephens.