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Stylish Sloane Stephens makes her move

January 18, 2012 07:51 AM
Sloane Stephens will take on Svetlana Kuznetsova in her second-round match.
By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com

MELBOURNE, Australia
-- If the ebullient Sloane Stephens manages to reach No. 1, she could take over the tennis world. The 18 year old has as much personality as any promising WTA teenager since Ana Ivanovic came on tour, but whether she has the former Serbian's No. 1 shot-making ability and unquenchable thirst for success remains to be seen.

But for now, Stephens has an immediate task ahead, which is her match against 2004 US Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round of the Australian Open.

If she performs like her heroine, 13-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, then she has a great shot at victory. But she has to keep keenly concentrated to do so, unlike at the tournament in Brisbane, when in the locker room, Serena spoke to her for the first time.

"She started talking to me, and I was like, 'Oh my God!' My bag happened [to be near her], and I didn't know if I should walk over, and I said, 'OK, just do it,' and she said hi. She was really nice. But I don't think she knew who I was. When she talked to me, it was like a dream. How awesome is she? She's like our tennis god."

Stephens showed just how much potential she had last year in reaching the third round of the US Open, knocking out No. 24 Shahar Peer. She also reached the quarterfinals of San Diego, taking No. 20 Julia Georges down. A rare clay-court lover from the U.S., she qualified for Roland Garros.

But for such a young player, she has already dealt with a decent amount of injuries. She pulled her abdomen during the US Open, and then her left wrist, which she hurt in 2009 and forced her to miss much of that year, started acting up again.

"My only goal in 2012 is to stay healthy and play every tournament on the planet. From the US Open until January, I didn't play a single tournament, and don't get me wrong, I had the time of my life," said Stephens, who took out Silvia Soler-Espinosa, 6-4, 6-2, in the first round. "I missed tennis. I said, 'This sucks. There's not anything to do.'"

Actually, Los Angeles resident Stephens found plenty to do. She could still practice but could only hit one-handed backhands. She went to concerts, went to every UCLA football game, hung out with her friends.

"I don't really get to do that usually," she said. "For me to know I'm going to see Chris Brown in concert, that's kind of a big thing since I'm away all the time. It's like what normal kids do. It was a nice change, but I couldn't live life like that all the time. I was ready to come back. Now I'm away from all the crazy people, and I'm excited."

Stephens ended last year ranked No. 91 but was the youngest player in the top 100. She's very fast, has a terrific forehand and rarely plays afraid on the big points.

During last weekend's NFL playoffs, some of the younger U.S. women players could be seen hanging out in the Australian Open player's lounge, raucously cheering on their favorite teams. They have gradually become closer, and according to the humorous Stephens, they are  "the big dogs."

Like fellow players Jamie Hampton and Alison Riske have said, Stephens said that the competition between the younger American women is healthy and friendly, but "during changeovers, it's like 'Ha-ha, hee-hee,' but then when it's time to play, it's like, 'I'm going to cut you,'" she said with a laugh. "I think we really push each other, and that's good because before it was like, who cares? But now it's gotten serious. There are a few of us in the top 100, and now we are ready to step up."

With Venus Williams sidelined with an illness and Serena also having struggled with injury and illness over the past two years, there will come a time when a player whose last name is not Williams will have to stand up and be counted. That player could be Stephens.

"When they stop playing, there will be someone else to take their spots, and we are searching for someone," Stephens said. "I don't think that's going to happen right now, but there are a lot of us, so who knows who will break through? Some one will step up, you just don't know who. When it comes, you guys will be excited."


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