Interview with Sloane Stephens: Don’t call her tennis’ new “it” girl yet

A talk with Sloane Stephens about how life has changed in the nearly 9 months since she beat Serena Williams at the Australian open. Also, why Stephens likes funeral homes.

She made the world look up from their cellphones at the very start of this year when she knocked down the seemingly unstoppable queen of tennis at the Australian Open. The then 19 year-old Sloane Stephens beat the world’s #1 women's tennis player, Serena Williams, in the quarterfinals match 3-6, 7-5, 6-4. And although it seems pride and a fuming rivalry between her once hero made it hard for her to admit it, Stephens life did changed after that match.

Q: What did you notice that changed most in your life after the Serena match at the Australian Open?
Stephens: I don’t know. Just a lot more craziness. It feels like less hours in the day. But mostly a lot more media obligations. I’m on TV more and I get to take more pretty pictures. (smiles)

Her bio says she first started playing at nine years old. She is now 20. This is her fourth year as a pro, but this is the year where more people are saying her name; and that’s because she beat Serena.

Off the court more, she’s gained more endorsements like American Express and Listerine; and she even launched her personal website, which is always a sign that someone is aware of their brand.

Q: When did tennis change to a business for you?
Stephens: I guess when I turned pro. But not really because I’m not really a serious person. So I definitely am just having fun and doing my thing. I don’t know. It doesn’t really feel like a job, but it is.

Which could be her downfall, because for everybody else on the tour, they know it very much is a business. A lesson Stephens learned when she did a candid interview ESPN the Magazine where she expressed her thoughts on how her once idol Serena Williams treats her in the tennis circles. That resulted in a passive aggressive “I made you” tweet from Serena (passive-aggressive because Serena didn’t tag Stephens, but everyone knew who she was talking to.)

Then the video of Stephens telling her coach that Serena’s celebrations between points were “disrespectful” at the earlier WTA Brisbane International tourney, is evidence that something was fuming between the two before the Aussie Open.

But it was after the ESPN piece that the media had a field day with a possible rivalry between the incumbent and challenging black dominant black women in tennis. Stephens says she acknowledged that was what some wanted and was caught off guard by the hype of it all. Since then Stephens says she’s learned her lesson and is now less candid with the media going forward.

Stephens is at the stage in a professional athlete's career where she can make it or break it. She has all the goods in place to become great, but isn’t yet. Glimmers of her talent have been demonstrated at the bigger tournaments this season, but she seems to fall early at some of the lesser tournaments on the WTA tour. She now has the attention of tennis fans, but isn’t a household name yet. For her to do that, she has to stay focused...and win. It’s the same story that we’ve seen over and over again in sports.

Q: You train many hours, how intense is it?
Stephens: really intense. Like no one would be able to do it if you didn’t play tennis. I do two hours of fitness in the morning and then four hours of tennis throughout the day. Then I’m done.

And now the U.S. Open: the first major where American fans, now that they know who she is, can see her show her stuff on the main stage. Going into the tournament she is ranked as the world’s #16 best player. Before the Australian Open, by the way, she was #38. And the draw has her once again facing Serena Williams, should they both advance to the fourth round of the tournament.

Q: What drives you?
Stephens: I don’t know. I just like competing and getting out on the court. I mean it’s not like I have anything else to do. So I might as well go out and play tennis. I get to travel the world and just have fun and eat great food. And just love being out there and just kind of hanging out.

Sloane is the product of two parents who were athletes themselves. Her mother Sybil Smith was a swimmer at Boston University, and in 1988 became the first African-American female to be named First Team All-American in Division I history. Her father was John Stephens, who played most of his career with the New England Patriots, and made the Pro Bowl and NFL Rookie of the Year in 1988. (Sloane was born in 1993, by the way.)

Q: Everyone likes to bring up your athletic pedigree: your mom and dad were successful athletes. But, what did you want to be when you grew up? Was it always sports?
Stephens: My family owns a funeral home and I like being in there. But I guess that’s really not an option. But I’ve only really played tennis. I’ve tried other sports, but they’re not really fun. I don’t like contact. So I think an individual sport was going to work best for me.
The truth is that Stephens wasn’t really close with her father. He died in 2009 (the same year she turned pro), but she didn’t really know him. But she grins and bears it every time a media member asks about him; which means she is mentally tough. A skill very useful in tennis. She knows that she has it but it’s hard for her to quantify it.

Q: What do you do in game to come back?
Stephens: It’s just sometimes finding a way to win and you just gotta fight your way through it. There’s no certain thing that [I] do. You just do your best and it works differently for different people. There’s no secret.

She has a playful demeanor, which on occasion can come off unfocused; especially in the cases when she loses to lesser players.  But the fact is that Sloane Stephens is still very young. She is 20 years old. And although the tennis life on surface seems to be one that is enchanted and glamorous, it is in truth grueling and lonely. Stephens isn’t the first one to do it, and she uses her laptop to cope.
Q: Do you watch reality shows?
Stephens: I used to watch the Kardashians but I’m over it. It was a phase. I used to be really into it, but now I’m off of it. I watch Scandal…it’s my favorite show. Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice. I watch a lot of TV on my computer because I’m never at home to watch it.

Q: What’s your favorite song right now?
Stephens: my favorite song right now is ….Oh Taylor Swift. I knew you were trouble. Oh, the we’re never getting back together one!

Q: What’s your favorite sport to watch, other than tennis.
Stephens: football is my favorite sport to watch.

And that’s not because of her father. She said it is because the football players are cute, and the ones in college are her age.

Q: What celebrity do you want to meet?
Stephens: Oh my God! I want to meet Barack Obama, I mean obviously. But I want to meet Kerry Washington because she’s gorgeous. Oh and Charlize Theron because I love her too. She’s so pretty.

Fashion is a big part of tennis. On the court she wears Under Armor and said she had a part in designing her looks for the season. Under Armor sells the Sloane Stephens collection, including the gear she wears this season on tour.

Q: How much do you think about what you’re going to wear?
Stephens: A lot. It’s been a long process. And this year with Under Armour I have my own line. So I have  a lot of input with that. I think it’s cute. In Australia I looked hot. (laughs)
On court I try to look my best. But it’s hard to look your best when you’re pouring down sweat and your hair looks a mess.

January was the Australian Open tournament that changed everything for Sloane Stephens. It’s been nine months with a lot of up and downs on and off the court. Fans are hopeful that she does push past the obstacles and becomes the next great one in womens tennis. It seems Stephens knows what she has to do; she just has to now execute it.

Q: What’s do you think about yourself professionally?
Stephens: I just want to keep improving and I have a really long ways to go. Serena’s 31 and she’s still playing. I’m 20 and I hope to be playing until I’m 31. So just to stay healthy and keep enjoying it. Because it gets tough traveling 30 weeks a year, being on the road and away from home. Just to take it day by day really.

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