Sloane Stephens, 20, hopes to one day soon become a Grand Slam tournament champion after strong showings in five consecutive major events.
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By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE -- Sloane Stephens says that in 2014 she is planning to “step it up” in smaller tournaments. Perhaps she will, but the one thing that the tennis world knows is that she consistently raises her game at the Grand Slams.
After her 7-5, 6-4 victory over Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina in the third round of the Australian Open, Stephens extended her streak as the only current player age 20 or younger to reach the second week in the last five majors. She says she “doesn't know why she plays better at the majors than at other events,” but it’s pretty clear that Stephens has all the makings of big match competitor who can play smart, steady and ambitiously when called upon.
The world No. 13 manages her matches better than anyone of her age. She also thinks that she has improved since last season, which could help her a great deal in the round of 16, where she will face two-time defending champion Victoria Azarenka, who beat Austria’s Yvonne Meusberger, 6-1, 6-0, to advance to the fourth round.
“I don't get flustered as easily” said Stephens, comparing her current calm to the nerves she felt at the start of her professional career. “I don't get overwhelmed and I'm kind of just learning to focus on myself, because that's the only thing I can control. … I definitely [feel mentally stronger]. I have worked on a lot of things and I've gotten better and I've improved. I feel a lot better on the court.”
The daughter of an All-American swimmer and a NFL All-Pro running back, Stephens is one of the fastest players on tour. She arrived on the pro scene as a standout defensive player, and she has continued to add high-powered offense. She owns a huge forehand that is hard to read, a deceptively big first serve and a two-handed backhand that she can crack both ways.
Stephens also can be a very slow starter, which at times leaves her vulnerable. In her 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 second-round victory over the talented Croatian teenager Ajla Tomljanovic, she played passively in the early going before rallying to event things up at a set apiece. Stephens and Tomljanovic were forced to go off court with Stephens leading 3-0 in the third set due to a thunder and lightning storm, and when play resumed, the American returned in a bit of a funk, dropping five consecutive games to go down 3-5. Fortunately, she woke up in time and ripped one winner after another to take the contest.
“So dramatic,” said Stephens after that match. “I like to keep it interesting. Obviously I don't like to sleep because I like going home super late. I did my best. Sometimes it comes out in a roundabout way. I get there in the end. That's good.”
In the off-season, Stephens trained with the former coach of Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, Paul Annacone, in Los Angeles. She recently designated the 50-year-old tennis teacher, whom she described playfully as an “an old guy,” as her full-time coach. Annacone has never mentored a WTA player on a full-time basis before.
“I just want to get better,” said Stephens. “I expressed to Paul everything that I felt and feel on the court and everything. I think he's very understanding of that. We did our thing together. We did pretty good work over the offseason. I didn't feel like I had to impress him. I think he treated me like I was his child. It worked out good.”
Annacone began coaching the American legend Sampras full time in 1995, and helped him win nine of his 14 Grand Slam titles. He also led the veteran Federer to his only Slam crown since 2010, which was the 17-time Grand Slam winner's 2012 Wimbledon title.
Stephens is four years younger than Sampras was when Annacone first took him on, so he has a different type of project on his hands. At 20, she still has a lot of maturing to do as player and person.
Stephens talked to Annacone about traveling on tour, and “going week-to-week if I'm lonely, like just little things that kind of creep into your mind. Even on the court when you get tight in a match and you're nervous before matches or anything like that. He definitely helps me with that, and that's a good thing.”
Stephens gets Azarenka again in a rematch of their controversial semifinal in Melbourne last year, when the Belarussian was criticized by some for taking a medical timeout up 5-4 in the second set of her eventual 6-1, 6-4 win.
Stephens said she doesn't recall much of what happened during the contest, but the loss came after two titanic three-set wins over Serbia’s Bojana Jovanovski and current world No. 1 Serena Williams. Stephens became rattled during the last game of the Azarenka clash, but doesn't believe that will happen again.
Stephens may be only 20, but she’s no longer a newcomer. With another four Grand Slam experiences in her pocket since last year’s Down Under breakout, she believes she’s a more seasoned competitor this time around.
“She had more experience,” said Stephens of Azarenka. “She's won a Grand Slam; she's been in that position a lot of times. It's definitely a learning experience for me. Definitely now, if I was in the same position, which I am obviously not in the semis, I know what I have to do. I have to play my game and focus on myself and focus on what I do best.”
For more coverage of Americans at the 2014 Australian Open, please also read:
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