Sloane Stephens in action during the French Open qualifying tournament.
© Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty Images
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
PARIS -- A number of Sloane Stephens' friends went to the senior prom on Friday night, and the California native was a little sad to have missed the traditional high school outing, but she wouldn't have traded in her clay-stained dress for a more formal frilly one, as the 18-year-old qualified for her first Grand Slam at Roland Garros, when she upset top-seed Anastasia Pivovarova, 6-3, 6-3, in the final round.
"I was really upset, and my friends told me they had a good time but that I didn't miss anything, but I know they had a lot of fun, and I did miss some," she said. "I saw pictures and this and that, so when we get back, we are going to have a pretend prom and dress up. But the sacrifice is worth it. I missed a lot of my friend's graduations, but I've made such a big life sacrifice for myself that I have to be committed, and I can't be upset if I miss things like that because it will happen all the time. I'm prepared for the disappointments and the successes."
With the United States' two best players in Serena and Venus Williams out of Roland Garros with injuries, it's a good time for some of the younger players to shine, and there are a slew of 20-and-unders in the main draw, including Stephens, CoCo Vandeweghe, Melanie Oudin, Christina McHale and Irina Falconi. Only Oudin has reached the second week of a Grand Slam before (she did it twice in 2009 at Wimbledon and the US Open), but all of them have potential to be solid, at least top-50 players over the next decade, if not higher.
Stephens is one of the few U.S. players who calls herself a clay-court lover, saying that it's her favorite surface. While learning to play in Fresno, Calif., at the Fig Garden Racquet Club, the sole Har-Tru court was held out as a treat.
"We almost never got to play on that court, and when we did, it was like 'Yes!' That's when I really started to love it. Then when I moved to Florida, that's all we played on, and it was awesome. The clay season is my favorite time of the year."
Stephens' results have shown that. She came into Charleston ranked No. 180 and qualified before losing to Peng Shuai in the first round. She then won two qualifying matches in Fes and in Estoril, won three more, knocked off Oudin in the first round before going down to Monica Niculescu. Two weeks ago, she won the $50,000 Challenger at Reggio Emilia, Italy, taking out former top-25 player Sabine Lisicki in the process.
"I feel really good on it, and once you feel really good about something, that will take you a long way," she said. "I love everything about it. Winning the Challenger and then qualifying here has done a lot for my confidence. This is my first main draw of a Grand Slam, and I'm really happy about that."
Stephens was nervous before her match against Pivovarova because she knew there was a lot on the line. It's not often that 18-year-olds qualify for majors away from home, as some are overwhelmed by the experience.
"I said I have to relax and play, or I'm going to get so tight I'm not going to be able to play, or I'd do something stupid, so I stayed focused, and it worked out."
Armed with quick feet, a good and improving serve and a big forehand, Stephens can do a lot of damage from inside the baseline. She's coached by former USTA coach Roger Smith and is the daughter of former New England Patriots running back John Stephens, who tragically passed away during the 2009 US Open. She has athletic genes, not only from her father, whom she didn't know that well, but from her mother Sybil, a former All-American swimmer. It was Sybil who introduced her to tennis, but it's Sloane who drives herself, overcoming a bout of wrist tendonitis in 2009 and working her way through Futures and Challengers and into WTA main draws.
If she could manage to win a few more matches in Paris, she could crack the top 100 for the first time. She'll face Britain's Elena Baltacha in the first round, a capable and powerful player but not one who had to dig in on dirt over the past four days and who claims a love affair with it.
"Qualifying is awesome because I did it myself and no one handed it to me and I had to work for everything," Stephens said. "I'm a lot better now, and it's about sticking it out there with the girls and believing in yourself. I'm not a little girl anymore, and I'm more mature on court."