April 14, 2009

Stephens on the rise in girls' tennis

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Sloane Stephens says her tennis career wasn't a matter of fate, but it sure seems that way.

The 16-year-old from Los Angeles proved to be a natural. Stephens is listed 20th in the USTA Girls' 18s rankings and also is the top college recruit for the Class of 2011, according to TennisRecruiting.net, even though she didn't even pick up a racquet until the age of 10 four years after most of her competitors started.

"I wasn't destined for tennis or anything," said Stephens, who is home-schooled. "I just lived across the street from a country club, and I didn't really play any other sports. My stepdad played there, so I just kind of went over there one day and started playing.

"I started late, but it doesn't matter if you start late. It just matters what you do with your time."

Stephens knew tennis was for her shortly after trying it out at a country club in her then-hometown of Fresno, Calif., and she was playing in her first tournament there within the year.

"I was pretty good," Stephens said. "I was athletic, and I had good coordination and things like that, so it wasn't like I was ever bad. It didn't take me that long before I knew I could do this."

Her first coach, former Puerto Rican Davis Cup player Francisco Gonzalez, made the sport easy to enjoy. She said Gonzalez created a fun atmosphere to learn and play in by singing and doing cartwheels on the court.

It also helped that she came from a family of athletes, so she wasn't too far behind ability-wise it was just a matter of picking up the different skills needed specifically for tennis. Her father is former New England Patriots running back John Stephens, a first-round draft pick in 1988, and her mother, Sybil Smith, was a 1988 All-American swimmer at Boston University.

"Everyone in my family is really athletic, so I am pretty fortunate," said Stephens, who is a 5-foot-7 right-hander known for her quickness on the court.

Stephens moved with her mother to Boca Raton, Fla., when she was 11 and started training at the Evert Academy after school. The next year she stepped it up another level, joining the Nick Saviano High Performance Tennis Academy and starting a virtual-learning home-school program so she could attend tournaments without worrying about missing school.

Now she is practicing six days a week, four hours a day.

"That's when I really got into it just with fitness and tennis," Stephens said. "I started playing a lot more, and when I was going to school, I was missing a lot of school for tournaments and they would drop your grade a letter. I was missing so much, it was just easier when you can do it by yourself and get help that way, rather than missing school and not getting any help while you're away."

Because of age restrictions, Stephens, who moved back West in January, is limited to the number of tournaments she can play each year. She just turned 16 last month, which allowed her to add two tournaments to her plate this year so she now can play 12.

Of the many tournaments she has competed in, the U.S. Open is by far the best, she said. Stephens went out in the second round of qualifying for the Grand Slam event last year as a wild-card entry, but in the juniors tournament the next week she made it to the girls' doubles final and the girls' singles round of 16.

Other highlights, as far as results, include finishing in the consolation quarterfinals of the 2008 USTA Girls' 18s National Championships and helping lead the U.S. to the Junior Fed Cup title for girls aged 16-and-under last year. In December, Stephens, currently listed at No. 117 in the ITF junior rankings, reached the girls' 18s semifinal of the Dunlop Orange Bowl.

Stephens also enjoyed success in limited appearances on the USTA Pro Circuit in 2008, sandwiching two quarterfinals appearances at $10,000 events in Landisville, Pa., and Wichita, Kan., around a semifinals appearance at the $10,000 event in Sumter, S.C.

"It's crazy because you really have to pick your tournaments and learn which tournaments you should and shouldn't be playing," Stephens said.

The teen has been to countries such as the Czech Republic, Brazil and Spain. She also will be traveling extensively this summer within the U.S., as she competes in the World Team Tennis co-ed league with the New York Buzz.

"I like the traveling," Stephens said. "It's interesting the places we go, and I really like trying new restaurants. It gets tiring after a while, but you take a break and you're OK."

The future is wide open for Stephens.

"I have to develop," Stephens said. "I am still young, and I have a long way to go. I am only in 10th grade so I don't have to make any decisions. I don't want to make any decisions and feel pressured and then think I shouldn't have done that."

But that doesn't mean she hasn't thought about turning pro after high school. If Stephens continues finding success by the time she is a senior, she said she probably won't go to college.

"If I keep seeing results, I want to keep it going, but if it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," Stephens said.

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