The rise of Sloane Stephens to the elite of women’s tennis has come with tough life lessons, from dealing with rowdy crowds to learning when to keep quiet.
Stephens, second in the WTA rankings among American women and at 20 the youngest player in the top 30, has struggled this year with a byproduct of her success -- getting mobbed by fans, including one girl who hit her with a racket.
“Having my ponytail pulled, that was a little intense,” Stephens said in an interview in New York at the U.S. Open, where the 15th seed next could face top-ranked Serena Williams. “People kind of attack you and it’s a little rough, but I think it comes with the territory and you just have to go with it.”
Stephens learned another lesson this May when her disparaging comments about Williams were published in a magazine. She accused Williams of giving her the cold shoulder after Stephens won their Australian Open quarterfinal match.
“It’s not easy for anybody; and for Sloane, who is a very out-there kind of girl and who wears her emotions on her sleeve, it’s even more difficult,” 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Chris Evert said on an ESPN conference call. “Her emergence has been very dramatic and very quick and her life has changed so quickly. She’s just getting used to the life of being famous.”
Stephens reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open for the first time with a 6-1, 6-3 victory today over fellow American Jamie Hampton, the 23rd seed. She next faces the winner of tonight’s match between Williams, the 31-year-old defending champion from the U.S., and Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan.
Stephens’s three wins this week at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, have highlighted her new emphasis on attacking. She has increased the percentage of her points earned on winners and errors forced on her opponents, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Sports, rather than playing it safe and waiting for unforced errors to give her points.
In 2013 Grand Slam tournaments, Stephens has won about 63 percent of her points on winners and forced errors, which Bloomberg Sports refers to as the points earned percentage. That compares to 59.8 percent last year and a points earned percentage of 48.5 in 2011.
Taking control of points has become Stephens’s focus. Though her points earned percentage of 55.6 at last year’s U.S. Open was an increase from 47.7 percent in 2011, it still was the fifth-lowest mark among all women who played two or more matches at the tournament, according to Bloomberg Sports data.
“I think I’ve just worked on being more aggressive and really just trying to assert myself more on the court, and I think it’s worked, obviously,” she said. “You always have to think, ‘I’m going to go for my shots, I’m not going to let the person push me around.’”
Just as with fame, the attacking has a downside. Stephens, who also reached the third round of the tournament the past two years, made 55 unforced errors in her opening match this week.
“That’s not good, I never want to have that,” Stephens told reporters after she needed a third-set tiebreaker to beat unseeded Mandy Minella of Luxembourg 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-5) in a first-round match that lasted almost three hours. “That’s horrible.”
Stephens captured 80 of her 123 points against Minella on winners and forced errors, a points earned percentage of 65. She had 38 winners and forced Minella into 42 errors.
In a 6-1, 6-1 second-round win against Poland’s Urszula Radwanska, Stephens had a points earned percentage of 61.1 with 24 winners and nine forced errors among 54 points.
Stephens reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in January, and was a Wimbledon quarterfinalist in July. After starting the year ranked 38th in the world, she is now No. 16. She’s earned $1.2 million in 2013 and almost $1.9 million in her career without winning a tournament.
The success has brought new demands on her time. She signed 240 autographs in 25 minutes at the U.S. Open’s American Express Fan Experience three days ago, rushing through and rarely making eye contact as fans thrust balls, hats and postcards at her. At a warm-up tournament near Cincinnati, she said at a news conference that during the U.S. Open she didn’t “plan to go outside because I know I will probably not make it out alive.”
Hall of Fame player Pam Shriver said dealing with stardom is a challenge for all young players.
“Sloane is suffering from what most people who have that early burst have, and she will work her way through it,” Shriver said in an interview. “She’s got to learn to manage people wanting a piece of her. If you want to be a top player and you’ve got charisma, that’s what you’re going to get.”
Stephens is the daughter of athletes. Her mother, Sybil Smith, in 1988 became the first black woman to be a first-team All-American swimmer in the top division of U.S. college sports. Her father, John Stephens, was a National Football League running back from 1988-93 and died in 2009.
Smith said her daughter has struggled this year with the demands of stardom, from people waving at her in restaurants to the crush of fans at tournaments.
“It’s a little bit of a shock to the system,” Smith, a former swimmer at Boston University, said in an interview at the Open. “Instead of fighting it, you have to embrace it.”