Sloane Stephens living a teenage dream
PARIS -- Less than an hour had elapsed since American Sloane Stephens recorded the biggest win of her young professional tennis career, and life was already returning to normal.
The unseeded Stephens advanced to the fourth round of the French Open on Friday by soundly defeating Mathilde Johansson of France 6-3, 6-2 on Court Philippe Chatrier. It's the first time in her career she has reached the fourth round of a Grand Slam, so this win was a very big deal.
Her mom, Sybil Smith, and her aunt Kalen Wright wanted to make sure she ate something before she faced her biggest news conference to date at Roland Garros. But Stephens didn't feel hungry.
Like many mealtime battles waged between moms and kids, Smith asked her daughter to please try some of her steak frites lunch. And so she did, just to appease her mom.
Stephens is moving through a curious, shifting world, one many 19-year-olds have to work through in a less public way. She's becoming her own woman, defining her career on the tennis court. And off the court, she's learning how to handle her growing fame, growing into adulthood and all the intense things that come with the nomadic life of tennis.
Stephens is ranked No. 70, but that certainly will jump the next time the rankings are released on June 11. Her bank account is growing too, as she's earned more than $100,000 -- doubling her winnings for the year -- through three victories at the French Open. Her next opponent will be sixth-seeded Samantha Stosur.
Stephens is having the sport's spotlight turn on to her, and her mom thinks her daughter is ready.
"Whatever comes, comes," Smith said. "It doesn't change who we are, what we believe in or how we live life. We are so excited, blessed right now. So blessed. Sloane has been working very hard for this; this is what she wants. She understands it's not going to be easy, and you have to constantly keep working harder to reach your goals. And when you have success, you have to work even harder to keep it going.
"I'm happy that she's happy. That's all I want. I want her to be happy with what she's doing."
Stephens, in some ways, was destined to be an elite athlete. Smith was a champion swimmer who competed in the 1988 U.S. Olympic trials and was an All-American at Boston University. Stephens' dad was the late Patriots running back John Stephens. The two did not have an active relationship until Sloane Stephens was in her teens, and then he died in a car accident just before the start of the U.S. Open in 2009.
Tennis has been her passion since she was small, growing up in Florida, and now she's starting to see herself as one of the next big-time American faces of the game. She was inspired by Venus and Serena Williams and Kim Clijsters.
Stephens admits she finds it "crazy" that she's still playing in the French Open, lasting longer than the Williams sisters. Serena also was playing Friday but not on center court. She was tucked away on an outside court with little fanfare to play mixed doubles with Bob Bryan. Clijsters didn't even enter Roland Garros because of injury.
The American singles hopes are about Stephens now, and she's looking at the upswing.
"Yeah, I'm excited because now I am going to have more Twitter followers," Stephens said.
She was curious at lunch to hear how her Twitter followers @Sloanetweets had increased during Friday's match, growing by about 400 in four hours to more than 6,000. Her eyes lit up as she mouthed "Wow."
"It's always good to be recognized, you know, for sport," Stephens said. "I think being up there with Venus and Serena, I think, that's awesome. I'm excited. I'm happy that I am improving and getting better, and that I can be here."
Stephens showed her growing maturity and that she's still a teen within a five-minute span. When she came into the large interview room at Roland Garros on Friday, she sat down at the podium. She looked up and was blinded for a second by the bright TV lights. She looked surprised.
This is the room where up to 80 journalists meet with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka after their matches. Stephens normally goes to the smaller interview rooms, which seat about 20, with fewer lights and reporters.
And now, the media about 35 strong, waited in the big room for Stephens.
Once she got her bearings, Stephens was her usual upbeat, chatty self. She figured it out, learning a new lesson. Stephens is quite familiar with the French Open, as she's been coming here since her junior days. She won the 2010 girls' doubles title with Timea Babos of Hungary.
Stephens' coach, Roger Smith, and her mom say they have seen a clear spike of personal growth in her the past six months. She's always been level-headed and focused, but now she is finding her own ways to stay patient and calm in stressful situations. Playing on the largest stadium in front of a French-partisan crowd could have gotten to Stephens.
She was wearing a silver link-style necklace with a small heart pendant. Her grandparents gave her the jewelry and had the heart inscribed with "In calmness and confidence." She would sometimes touch the heart between points, as if reminding herself to stay in a good zone.
Save for a few tense moments closing out each set, Stephens remained in control. She broke Johansson seven times and committed one double fault. She kept a sense of humor, sticking her tongue out a few times when she missed a shot.
"I was never worried, because I saw what she was doing out there," Roger Smith said. "It was up to her, and she did it. She went out there and really played her game. I'm really proud of her. I think the sky is the limit. It's great to put in the work, like she has, and see the results. I'm really happy for her."
Stephens has been playing well on clay but admits her confidence was low a few weeks ago. She had a rocky start to the season, coming into the French Open with a losing record. She decided to make some changes, cutting down on her intake of soda and candy, and focusing on her short-term goals with her coach.
She wanted to play the very best she could at Roland Garros, no matter the outcome. The results speak for themselves, and Stephens is bounding with confidence.
On May 30, Stephens tweeted, "If you look good, you feel good. If you feel good, you play good. If you play good, they pay good."
She added during the news conference, "It was, the only way to go was up. ... I was having brain farts, and things weren't going my way. I was being 19, and I think now I am being 29."
Making it as the first American to the fourth round is far past what they could have dreamed. And now, she's put herself in contention to make the U.S. Olympic team. Serena, Christina McHale and Venus look like they've sewn up three of the four spots. The last spot could be between Stephens and Varvara Lepchenko. McHale and Lepchenko play in the third round on Saturday.
The results of the French Open will influence the rankings, which in turn will be used by the U.S. Tennis Association to help pick the team.
"I'm not thinking about it," Stephens said when asked about the London Olympics. "Too stressful. ... So I decided, if it happens, it happens; if it doesn't, it doesn't."
Mom was sitting in the back of the room, watching with amusement as her daughter held court with the media.
The truth was evident: Stephens sounds like she's growing up fast, but she needs to make sure she eats lunch.
Mom's still watching, and worrying, about her baby.