(December 19, 2012) -- She may have decided to forego a college career, but that doesn’t mean Sloane Stephens has missed out on an education. Hers has simply come via life on the WTA Tour -- a life that involves hours with her coach on the practice court, countless reps in the gym, international travel, and a healthy dose of fame and attention.
By the looks of things, she’s getting straight A’s.
Stephens has finished the last two years as the youngest woman in the top 100 and top 50 respectively, and the now 19-year-old tells Tennis Now that she “loves” the pressure that inevitably comes along with such standout seasons.
“Obviously if there’s nothing riding on it, it would be boring, and we’d have nothing to talk about, “ she said, matter-of-factly. “I think it’s fun.”
But the South Florida native’s success on the court is only partly responsible for her launch into the pro tennis spotlight. Her personality deserves just as much credit. In an age where athletes often reveal as little of themselves as possible, Stephens has endeared herself to fans and the media with her sparkling smile, youthful honesty, and charm.
Over the past year, she’s gone public with her love of Twitter, sodas, sweets, as well as her schoolgirl crushes on various professional athletes. Turns out she’s now soda free after her French Open revelation that excessive Fanta consumption might not be good for her career. She hasn’t been quite as successful in cutting out sweets, however (her penchant for Twizzlers has proven too great a temptation).
“No soda, but I’m still eating candy, of course,” she said with a laugh.
When asked about any notable new Twitter followers, she had this to say:
“[NBA player] Eric Gordon. Isn’t that so exciting? We train at the same place, and when I see him in the hallways, I always give him so much crap. Oh, and Ricky Romero. He’s a pitcher for Toronto…love, love him. Those are my two favorites right now.”
One thing Stephens decided against sharing with the media was the severity of the abdominal injury that kept her out of competition this fall. She initially tore the muscle during her fourth-round run at Roland Garros, but opted to play through the pain in hopes of salvaging her summer schedule.
“I kept playing when I shouldn’t have,” she said. “I wanted to play the U.S. Open Series and wanted to make the Olympics, and it kept getting worse and worse.”
The morning after losing to Ana Ivanovic in the third round of the U.S. Open, Stephens’ muscle had started to bleed, causing severe abdominal swelling.
“After I lost to Ivanovic, people were like, ‘Oh, she wasn’t trying,’ and I was like, ‘I’m definitely bleeding in my abdomen and going to the hospital.’ They gave me all this medicine to make it go down, and they thought I had a blood clot. Whatever, obviously I’m alive now, so it’s fine.”
The injury gave Stephens an extended offseason where, in addition to “going to football games, hanging out with friends, and being 19,” she’s been able to focus on her conditioning.
“I’m doing way more fitness than I’ve ever done,” she explained. “I started with a new trainer, and I’m doing more fitness than playing. Next year, if my fitness is bad, I can say, ‘Well, that was a waste!’“
Stephens’ happy-go-lucky approach to life comes despite facing unthinkable adversity. Her father, ex-NFL player John Stephens, was killed in a car accident in 2009. Her beloved stepfather died of cancer two years before that. But if you think Sloane feels sorry for herself, think again.
“I’ve gone through some crazy, crazy things,” she admitted. “It’s made me better, but I mean, a lot of people have gone through crazy stuff. I think if that didn’t happen to me, and I was in the same position as I am now, I think my mom raised me well enough to deal with things as they come. I think I would probably handle myself the same way with or without all those tragedies that happened.”
Stephens’ mother Sybil, a former NCAA All-American swimmer, has managed to oversee her daughter’s career without creating the friction that so often accompanies tennis parent/child relationships. Evidence of which can also be seen in the management of Sloane’s growing bank account. She may have netted over $400,000 in prize money this year alone (in addition to endorsement dollars from companies like Under Armor and Head), but the teenager still gets an allowance. And she’s okay with that.
“I don’t ever spend money. The only thing I spend money on is food. I have an allowance, and my mom and uncle do it, and we have this accountant guy that we use. Not to worry, I’m not going to be on 30 for 30: Broke,” she said, referring to ESPN’s documentary on famous athletes who have blown their millions.
On Christmas night, when most 19-year-olds would be home from college and spending time with family, Stephens will be boarding a flight for Australia. She’ll open her season in Brisbane followed by Hobart, where last year her ranking relegated her to qualifying play (she lost in the first round of both). Sloane knows the expectations are much higher as she enters a new year in the spotlight, but she’s well prepared. Like her coach David Nainkin always says: “Practice shows when you play.”
“I'm ranked 38 now, so that can only get better," she said. "I think I have a lot of things to bring in 2013. It’ll all work out, you’ll see. It will be really, really good.”
Slices of Sloane:
On fame: “It’s fun. I like it. It’s been fun so far. I haven’t had any bad experiences with people wanting to pet me or stab me or anything. So that’s moving in the right direction. As long as it stays happy and fun, I think we’ll be okay. “
On what might happen if one of her crushes decided to reciprocate: “You can say stuff and get away with it, so it’s fine, but I think I could get in trouble when I say something and someone’s like, ‘Oh yeah let’s do it.’ That hasn’t happened yet, thank God. But something will happen eventually.”
On how she handled media expectations in 2012: “I think I handled it well. I think I worked it out pretty well and stayed true to myself and stayed positive, and didn’t worry too much about American tennis and all that stuff. I think it worked out well. No pressure. Just trying to be me, do my best, and keep tweeting!
Love to win or hate to lose? Hate to lose.
Biggest strength? My body, my being, my whole being.
Biggest weakness? Myself.
Close to any girls on the tour? No. Serena…that’s about it.
Career aspirations outside of tennis? A doctor…oh no, an embalmer.
Current celebrity crush? Geez…Blake Griffin. I love him.
Christmas wish? New earrings.
New Year’s Resolution? To stay injury free for a whole year.
Biggest perk of being a professional tennis player? Twitter followers.
Biggest downside of being a professional tennis player? No privacy.
(Photo Credit: Gonzalo Cirstea)