By Steve Keating
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A year ago Sloane Stephens was unseeded, unnoticed and under the U.S. Open radar.
Not this year.
This year, the 25-year-old American could not be drawing more attention if she pulled up to the gates of Flushing Meadows in a pink Cadillac, fireworks shooting from the exhaust and rock music screaming from the stereo.
Winning a grand slam will do that to a virtual unknown, and Stephens was under the microscope on Monday as she began her title defence on a steamy Louis Armstrong Stadium court with a 6-1 7-5 win over 80th ranked Russian Evgeniya Rodina.
Last year it was Stephens, an unthreathening 83 in the rankings, playing the 2016 finalist Roberta Vinci in a first round match that went largely unnoticed by the opening day crowd.
A second round victory over 11th seed Dominika Cibulkova raised few eyebrows and it wasn't until a semi-final victory over Venus Williams that people finally began to take notice.
The fairytale run climaxed in spectacular fashion with Stephens thumping compatriot Madison Keys in the final, becoming just the fifth unseeded player in the professional era to win a grand slam.
Fast forward 12 months and Stephens is back at Flushing Meadows seeded third, and with the exception of Serena Williams, arguably the tournament's most popular figure.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)