Sloane Stephens: youngest female tennis player ranked in the top 40

Published: January 21, 2013
MELBOURNE, Australia — Sloane Stephens does not want your pity, not for the sadness in her family’s past and certainly not for the fact that she is about to face Serena Williams, winner of 15 Grand Slam singles titles and 20 straight matches.
“I’m ready to play already,” said Stephens, legs crossed in the sunshine as she sat for an interview at the Australian Open. “Let’s just get to it. I really think it’s going to be fun.”
This will be the 35th Grand Slam quarterfinal for Williams, the 31-year-old American champion. It will be the first for Stephens, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles who has a personality nearly as lively as her footwork.

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Sloane Stephens during her three-set, fourth-round win against Bojana Jovanovski on Monday.

Although Stephens has an effervescent side and a smile that can light up an interview room, there were no cartwheels or wide-eyed expressions of delight Monday in Hisense Arena after she beat Bojana Jovanovski in three sets in the fourth round.
It was as if Stephens had been here before, even if she has not.
“It’s just kind of normal,” Stephens said after her win. “I think I’ve just worked so hard for it that I just feel like now it’s supposed to come. Even if I didn’t win today, that would have been O.K. But I know it’s coming. It’s supposed to happen.”
Stephens has been hearing about her grand tennis destiny for years. Donald Dell, one of the most experienced agents and talent spotters in tennis, was hustling to get courtside when she was still playing junior tournaments. And he was not alone.
Stephens has made steady progress: finishing in the top 200 in 2010, the top 100 in 2011 and the top 50 last year, when she reached the fourth round of the French Open and tore an abdominal muscle in the process.
Though she played on in pain, she followed medical advice after losing in the third round of last year’s United States Open, resting for eight weeks rather than having surgery.
To avoid risking further wear and tear, she is not playing doubles. But she is playing singles very effectively. She is ranked 25th, but her run here means she will break into the top 20, making her the statistical leader of a promising generation of American women that includes Christina McHale, Jamie Hampton, Melanie Oudin and the 17-year-old Madison Keys.
Oudin, now 21, was the first to make an impact, reaching the quarterfinals of the United States Open in 2009. But she has struggled for consistency against more powerful opponents.
Though Stephens, at 5 feet 7 inches, is also shorter than many of her present and future rivals, power is not an issue. She has a big forehand, a solid two-handed backhand and a convincing serve, driven by her powerful legs. She also has serious speed.
“She’s probably one of the quickest players out here,” said David Nainkin, who coaches Stephens and the leading American men’s player, Sam Querrey, through the United States Tennis Association’s player development program in Carson. Calif.
The shared coaching arrangement began last summer after Stephens split with her longtime coach Roger Smith. She and Querrey have a close relationship and a friendly rivalry that seems to drive Stephens as much as any rivalry on the WTA Tour.
“I asked her in the off-season what her goals were — asked her seriously,” Nainkin said. “And she said, ‘I want to be ranked higher than Sam.’ ”
She is off to a good start. With Querrey ranked 22nd, she will be ahead of him come Monday. “Well, there’s really no bet; I think it’s just for pride,” Stephens said. “But obviously, egos are big. This is tennis.”
True, and Stephens now has her second chance in a month to see how her game and self-belief matches up against Williams, the game’s gold standard despite her No. 3 ranking.
Williams and Stephens played charades and bonded as Fed Cup teammates last year on a long trip to Ukraine. The have spent time together on and off the court in Los Angeles and finally played each other this month in Brisbane, Australia, with Williams winning, 6-4, 6-3, in a quarterfinal that was hardly one-way traffic.
In Brisbane, Stephens remarked during a changeover that Williams’s on-court bellows of “Come on!” were “disrespectful.” She said she was joking, but there is no doubt that Williams in full competitive mode can be an intimidating sight and sound.
Williams is also on quite a roll, having dropped just eight games in four matches in Melbourne.
“Definitely intense,” Stephens said of playing Williams. “In Brisbane, it was weird, really weird, to play her. But I think once you get your first-timers out of the way, it’s fine.
“It will be tough, obviously. It’s quarters of a Grand Slam. There won’t be like that first time, ‘Oh my God, I’m playing Serena!’ That’s kind of out the window now. So that’s good.”
Stephens lives in Westwood near the U.C.L.A. campus and generally practices with men. She lives with her mother, Sybil Smith, a psychologist and former all-American swimmer at Boston University, and her younger brother Shawn. They did not make the long journey to Australia with her because of Shawn’s commitments at home.
Stephens spent little time with her biological father, the former N.F.L. running back John Stephens. He died in a car crash in 2009, not long after she had re-established contact. Her stepfather, Sheldon Smith, died of cancer in 2007.
“You’ve just got to play the cards you’re dealt in life,” Stephens said. “I think I’ve coped pretty well. It’s just me, my mom and my brother, and I think my mom has done a really great job with me and my brother. I mean, things happen, and you’ve just kind of got to learn and move on. People in this world are far worse off than me. I don’t have a dad. I lost my stepdad, too, but I’ve been given everything. I have the best family in the world. I have my grandparents, my mom, my uncles, everyone. I’ve had some tough things happen to me, but I’ve never in my life wanted for anything.”
The last time two American women met in a Grand Slam quarterfinal was at the 2008 United States Open, where Serena beat her older sister Venus. The last three times before that were in 2004 when Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati played in the quarterfinals of all but one of the Grand Slam events.
Though Stephens has long admired Serena Williams’s ability and once had a poster of her on her wall, she said she did not begin playing because of Serena or Venus. “I got into it because it was an after-school activity and it was fun,” she said.
She also said, in an interview last year, that the fact that she and the Williamses are African-Americans had not been a major factor in making them role models.
“It doesn’t matter what race you are,” Stephens said. “If you are an amazing athlete and an amazing person and you can do unbelievable things through your sport, anyone will look up to you. I mean I love Kim Clijsters. I love so many different players. It doesn’t matter that they are American or African-American.”
Stephens said Monday that she was not looking for “an idol” in general and that she considered Williams a friend. One of their conversational topics in Melbourne has been grunting.
“We were talking and talking about grunting, and one of the ladies with us was just like, ‘Do you grunt?’ ” Stephens said. “And I was like, ‘I think so.’ And Serena’s like, ‘No you don’t.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I do.’ And she was like: ‘No dude, you don’t. You’re so quiet. You’re like a mouse on the court.’
“And I’m like: ‘O.K., whatever. I’m a mouse.’ And she’s like, ‘I’m such a spaz, but you’re so quiet.’ And I’m like ‘O.K., whatever, this is ridiculous.’ ”
Mouse or not, she will do her best to roar back if and when Williams comes at her hard in Wednesday’s quarterfinal.
“The thing about Sloane,” Nainkin said, “is she can raise her level.”

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