Sloane Stephens just wants to let her tennis do the talking at the French Open.
Little known outside of the sport until January, the 20-year-old was thrown into the spotlight at the Australian Open, where she reached her first Grand Slam semifinal by beating fellow American Serena Williams.
Lauded as the successor to the 15-time major champion, Stephens’s form slumped after Melbourne. Instead, her comment that world No. 1 Williams had been cold to her drew more attention than her tennis.
“Lesson learned,” Stephens said in an interview in Rome shortly before Roland Garros.
Stephens was cited as saying by ESPN The Magazine last month that Williams hadn’t said hello to her since Australia, unfollowed her on Twitter and deleted her as a BlackBerry messenger contact.
Although the 17th-seeded Stephens, the youngest woman inside the top 20, said she hadn’t read the article and “won’t ever read it,” she didn’t deny making the remarks. She said she and Williams talked face-to-face when the two were both playing in Madrid last month.
Williams said the pair have discussed the controversy.
“It’s between us and I think it’s just best kept that way,” Williams said in Rome.
Between Melbourne and Rome last month, Stephens failed to win back-to-back matches on the women’s tour.
“It was all a lot more demanding,” Stephens said. “I played so much, I needed a break. It was definitely a tough time for me.”
U.S. Fed Cup captain Mary Jo Fernandez said that Stephens had to adjust her expectations following a season when “everything was a bonus.”
“Every match she won was an achievement,” Fernandez said in an interview. “Now that she’s won matches and is inside the top 20, she’s expected to win and the pressure changes. People are now looking to beat you, you are now the one with the target on your back.”
At Roland Garros, Stephens has been in the headlines again -- this time for her tennis. For the second year in a row, she’s made the fourth round in Paris, where she’ll play defending champion Maria Sharapova of Russia today.
She’s not just sharing the spotlight with Williams this time round.
Stephens is one of four U.S. women to make the last 16, the country’s best showing in any major since the 2004 U.S. Open. There no American men in the fourth round.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who ousted former champion Li Na of China, faces Russia’s Maria Kirilenko. After beating 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic, Jamie Hampton faces Jelena Jankovic of Serbia. Williams yesterday moved to the quarterfinals with a 6-1, 6-3 win against Italy’s Roberta Vinci.
When asked if Stephens has the potential to win a Grand Slam tournament, Fernandez said “why not?”
“A Grand Slam champion is always so hard to predict, but she’s got the weapons,” said Fernandez, who is working at Roland Garros for broadcaster ESPN. “I always look for someone that can run, that can defend and that has a shot they can hurt you with. And she’s got that. It really comes down to the mental side of it. When you see people who have won majors in the past, I’d say 99 percent of them were all very mentally tough.”
Stephens has had to overcome a number of challenges in her private life.
Spurred on by her mother, Sybil Smith -- an All-American swimmer at Boston University -- and her stepfather Sheldon Farrell, Stephens started playing tennis at age nine. Since marrying Smith in 1997, Farrell had helped raised her. He died of cancer in 2007. Two years later, Stephens’s biological father John Stephens -- a former New England Patriots running back -- was killed in a car accident.
The family moved to Florida from California when Stephens was 11 so she could train at Saviano High Performance Tennis Academy in Fort Lauderdale. Eight years later, she became the first U.S. teenager to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since Williams at the 2001 U.S. Open.
“Not very many kids at my age dealt with losing two dads pretty close in time,” Stephens told reporters at Roland Garros after her first-round win. “It’s just me and my mom and brother, so it’s definitely a learning experience for all of us. Tough time, but got through it and came out on top.”
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