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Stephens takes next step

January 19, 2013 08:21 AM
Rising young American Sloane Stephens will be playing in her first career Grand Slam quarterfinal.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE—Sloane Stephens has faced hostile crowds before, but never against another player who was not representing the country they were playing in.
From the moment she stepped on court against fellow teenager Laura Robson at the Australian Open, the many Britons who had come to Melbourne to bake in the sun and watch their favorite players were singing their girl’s praises. They cheered Robson’s big serves, ground strokes and even Stephens’ unforced errors.
They played on Show Court 2 (which is actually the fourth-biggest court at the site, along with Show Court 3), which seats 3,000. People were hanging off the rafters.
"I felt like I was playing an Italian player in Italy," Stephens said. "It was crazy."
But Stephens wasn't easily shaken. She by no means played great in a match against an 18-year-old she has known since the 12 and unders, but she hung tough in the clutch and came away with a 7-5, 6-3 third-round victory.
With the win, Stephens, who is seeded at a major for the first time, at No. 29, has reached the round of 16 at a Slam for the second time. She also advanced to the fourth round at 2012 Roland Garros.
Stephens is only 19, but she’s no longer a babe in the woods. This was her eighth victory in 10 attempts since she arrived Down Under at the start of the season. She may not be 20 yet, but she’s playing smarter and did exactly what she needed to against the hard-hitting Robson, who had upset 2011 Wimbledon champion and No. 8 seed Petra Kvitova in the last round.
"I think I'm settling, and I feel a lot more comfortable on the court," she said. "Even going from tournament to tournament, I don't feel so much anxiety, like, ‘Oh, my God, I've got to go to this place, I've got to go here, I've got to get on a plane.’ I kind of just realize that this is how it works, this is what I have to do to be great. It's worked out so far."
The clash between the two ambitious youngsters was close and hard-fought. While Robson decided that the only way she could win the contest was by attempting to rip as many winners as possible, Stephens was much more patient and used her legs to track down balls until she could open up the court.
In doing so, she jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but Robson rebounded following a medical timeout to even the set at 4-4. Stephens had lost her momentum.
"[That's] kind of how the game works," Stephens said. "I don't know how many matches I played since I've been to Australia, but I'd say like in a good five of them there's been a bathroom break or a medical timeout. So I'm used to it."
At 5-5, Stephens cranked up her serve and held. She then broke Robson to win the set when her opponent erred on two forehands.
The second set was quite similar to the first, with Stephens breaking to 3-1 and forcing Robson to try and punch her way uphill. Because Stephens’ speed is blinding—her late father was a running back for the New England Patriots and her mother a former swimming star—it’s often overlooked that she can crack the ball. Against Robson, she was more lethal from the forehand side, nailing 13 winners.
The crowd grew into a fever pitch when Robson drew to 5-3, but Stephens held firm.
"It was super intense," Stephens said. "I think there wasn't a point where there wasn't something like, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is intense.’ That's what it's about, getting out there and getting after it. We played a good match. It was intense, but it was good."
Following Jamie Hampton’s tight, three-set loss to No. 1 Victoria Azarenka, Stephens and tournament favorite Serena Williams are the only two Americans left in the singles draw. Williams next plays Russian veteran Maria Kirilenko, whom she is 5-0 against.
Stephens, meanwhile, will face yet another hard-hitting young player, Serbian Bojana Jovanovski.
She noted that she’s more than happy to win ugly because that means that she’s sitting pretty mentally.
"Obviously, Grand Slams I come to play," she said.
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For more coverage of American players at the 2013 Australian Open, see:


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