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Surging Stephens off to a hot start

January 17, 2013 08:28 AM
No. 29 seed Sloane Stephens is the youngest player in the world's Top 30 and is seeded for the first time ever at a Grand Slam tournament.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE—In a generous moment after she had defeated Sloane Stephens, 6-4, 6-3, in the quarterfinals of Brisbane two weeks ago, Serena Williams declared that the now 25th-ranked teenager is a future No.1.
Williams and Stephens became very friendly during Fed Cup last year, with the 31-year-old Serena taking a big-sister role to the 19-year-old Stephens, which is perhaps why she wanted to give her "little sister" a big public pat on the back.
But while Serena might have been overstating Stephens’ case in the short term, in the longer run it’s clear that Stephens is a high-level player with a big upside.
On Thursday, on a super-hot afternoon at the Australian Open, Stephens took care of France’s Kristina Mladenovic, 6-4, 6-3, in the second round. In 2009, the two junior rivals had faced off in the Roland Garros juniors, with Mladenovic coming back to win a match that Stephens said took a long time to forget.
"That match made my career; I was devastated," Stephens said. "I cried for like a month after that. After that [ITF President] Francisco Ricci Bitti came up to me and said, ‘You played great,’ and I was like, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh [sound of weeping].’ [But today] showed me how far I came mentally and physically. Because when I played her last, she was acing me left and right. It showed me how much I’ve improved and that feels right."
Stephens came to Australia right after Christmas and has had a fine start to the year, not only reaching the quarters of Brisbane, but also the semis of another Australian Open tune-up, in Hobart, where she bested another notable 19-year-old, Britain’s Laura Robson, in the quarters.
Stephens, who is coached by USTA Player Development’s David Nainkin and has been aided in Australia by Troy Hahn, had more than a solid 2012, but she missed the entire fall season after losing to Ana Ivanovic in the third round at the US Open. She said that during the tournament she tore an abdominal muscle that kept her off the court for seven weeks.
"I was kind of just downplaying it, like it's no big deal or whatever, but the day before I played Ivanovic, maybe the day before that, it started bleeding, the muscle started bleeding, so it was getting swollen," she said. "I looked like a fat girl on the court because my stomach was bulging out, and it looked terrible. I just kind of was trying to forget about it, but it didn't work because I couldn't serve, I couldn't do anything."
During 2012, she frequently spoke of maintaining her focus and consistency from week to week, and she has done that this month. She said she’s proud of her January 2013 results and has decided to give herself a present, as long as her mother doesn't find out.
"It’s nice to be in the third round of a tournament and past the quarters the last two weeks," Stephens said. "I told my friend today that I can’t wait to get those Jimmy Choo shoes I promised myself. [I said] if I stay focused and concentrate, then I’ll reward myself with Jimmy Choo shoes. I asked my mom to get me them, and she said, ‘No,’ so I’m going to have to go behind her back and get them when I get home. If I order them and have them sent home, she’ll obviously send them back because I’m not there."
With continued success, Stephens’s closet may be full of Jimmy Choos very soon. She entered the Australian Open as the youngest player in the Top 30, she’s seeded at a Slam for the first time (at No. 29) and she’s pushed Serena harder than any other player this season, which says something given that Williams has only lost one match since late May.
And her game is rounding into shape to support those results. Stephens is one of the fastest players on tour, has a developing first serve, can rip winners off the ground and returns aggressively. Her talent is there, and she’s working to harness it so she can win matches even when she isn’t on her game.
"When you are not playing that great and your mind isn’t there, it’s tough to win," said Stephens, "but if you can focus on one thing, just getting the ball back in play, that helps. It’s a mixture of concentration and confidence and being willing to run every ball down."
Stephens will likely be placed on a show court for her third-round match against Robson, who upset No. 8 seed Petra Kvitove in a second-round marathon to set up another meeting between the two friendly rivals; the two have known each other since they've been 12 and their mothers are good friends.
"I wouldn’t say it's a rivalry,  but we’re the same age, so I guess it’s rivalry," Stephen said. "It’s not like Federer and Nadal, but it could be!"
Stephens said she's ready for this matchup to occur on a major stage. She’s played on big courts before and says that she won’t freeze up. In fact, she’d rather play on stadium so that more hardcore fans will recognize her. And her family will get a better look at how good she’s become, too.
"Nothing is worse [than] on the second point of the match, someone screaming out, ‘Serena!’" she said, recalling a point from her first-round match in Australia. "And I was like, ‘Great, here we go.’ My coach is like, ‘You rolled your eyes,’ and I thought, ‘This is going to be long day.’ But it’s fun playing on a big court and having a lot of people scream; that’s what makes the environment. I’m looking forward to it. My grandparents can watch me. My grandpa texted me and said he stayed up again to watch me on ‘the machine’—which is a computer."
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For more coverage of American players at the 2013 Australian Open, see:


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