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It's hard to tell where the giggle starts, though by the time it reaches Sloane Stephens' shoulders, her whole body is engulfed in it, legs bouncing, head bobbing, smile working, eyes popping. It's ready to light up her latest observation, insight, confession. So much is going on right now that Stephens doesn't know where to begin, or, actually, where to stop, which explains her saying, "Oh wow, like, you know, it's been so awesome, I wish everyone could know, I mean, like, really, you know, it's just soooo "
Beginning with a star turn at the French Open in Paris, where she won every set before falling 7-5, 6-4 in the fourth round to veteran Sam Stosur, and continuing at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, where she battled into the third
"I tried not to stare," she says, the giggle now in full possession of her. "Let's just say I was enjoying him."
Living in Los Angeles, with an endless stream of club invites and courtside tickets, Stephens is enjoying being the new it girl of American women's tennis, even if the rankings only list her at 39th. "There's plenty of room at the top," she said, and the 19-year-old isn't just talking about being on the court. Over the past year, Stephens has gone on a charm offensive to become the WTA's official ambassador of fun.
Ask her why Vogue called her up for a fashion spread and she says in a high-pitched purr, "Because I'm pretty." Ask her if she ever gets down and she insists, "I'm a happy person. I don't get strung out by a lot of crazy stuff." Her favorite surface? Clay, because "I love sliding around and being goofy." Her big offseason project? Getting a pingpong-foosball-air hockey-pool table for a garage she just turned into a game room behind the Bel Air home she shares with her mom, Sybil Smith, and younger brother, Shawn.
Just below all this YOLO, though, is a woman trying to take control of her life. There's no mistaking her raw skill: that booming forehand, which can change altitude more often than a plane in a storm; the long legs that power an all-court defense; the 110-plus mph serve that reminds you so much of well, we'll get to that in a minute. What comes next is the hard part.
U.S. Fed Cup coach Mary Joe Fernandez calls it "going out with a purpose." But Stephens lost her sense of purpose last May in Madrid, when she lost in the first round to the 117th-ranked Czech, Andrea Hlavackova.
"I didn't care at all," she said. "I'd completely lost confidence in myself." Stephens called her mom, a psychologist, and asked her to meet her at the tour's next stop in Rome. There, the two found themselves soul searching during a trip to the Vatican. "I told my mom, 'This isn't working for me,'" Stephens recalled.
What she lost, she realized, was a connection to the game that had carried her through two years of wrenching personal loss.
Growing up in Plantation, Fla., Stephens often rode her bike to a local country club to watch her stepfather, Sheldon Smith, play senior league tennis. "There were lots of old guys and they were terrible," she said with a chuckle. What stuck with her, though, was the sound of her stepfather laughing. So Sloane decided to pick up a racket, and suddenly, no one was laughing.
But in 2007, when her stepdad lost a two-year battle with cancer, Sloane dropped her racket. "For a long time, she couldn't play in tournaments because she was so used to Sheldon being there," Sybil said.
At about the same time, Sloane began to reconnect with her biological father, John Stephens, a pro bowl running back who played for New England from 1988 to 1992. Although he battled alcoholism for much of his life and didn't know his daughter well, Sloane said, "My dad John gave me the best DNA ever," and that was enough to help form a bond that grew over the phone. In September 2009, while Sloane was getting ready to qualify for the U.S. Open, she got word that John died in a fatal car wreck outside Shreveport.
I still wonder who's going to walk me down the aisle. And I can't make a call and say, 'Pick up this month's copy of Vogue, Daddy, I'm in it.' But both of them helped me learn how to be happy and live my life.” -- Sloane Stephens on moving on after losing both her stepfather and biological father
After years of keeping that part of her life buried, Stephens can finally open up about it. "I still wonder who's going to walk me down the aisle," she said. "And I can't make a call and say, 'Pick up this month's copy of Vogue, Daddy, I'm in it.' But both of them helped me learn how to be happy and live my life."
On returning from Europe this past spring, Stephens decided to tell her longtime coach, Roger Smith, that she wanted a change. She had her eye on the Olympics, but was still lagging in rankings points behind another rising star, Christina McHale, who is from Teaneck, N.J. "I thought, 'If I don't do this, I'm never going to get to the next level,'" Stephens said. As it turns out, she still didn't qualify. The four available singles spots on the U.S. team went to McHale, Venus and Serena Williams and Vavara Lepchenko, an Uzbek native who lives in Pennsylvania. But, said Stephens, "Once I made my decision, everything was more clear."
Since June, Stephens has been coached by South African veteran David Nainkin, who is trying to sharpen her anticipation so she can use her forehand better off the serve to dictate points. He's also trying to maximize the power she gets out of her legs so she can serve faster than the 115 mph she's regularly clocked at, and with less effort. One sign of her potential: she gained 32 ranking points from May to October while nursing a torn abdominal muscle. "She's a phenomenal athlete," Nainkin said.
As Stephens watches herself climb the rankings, she is also watching herself get compared to a young Serena Williams, though the comparison is strained on several levels. For one thing, their games are mirror images: Sloane dictates from her power forehand, Serena from her power backhand. For another, Serena had already been in the top 10 for two years when she was Sloane's age. But the most unfair part of the comparison is the way it heaps the Williams' outsized legacy on Stephens' still-developing shoulders. Interestingly, Serena, who also lives in L.A., is trying to shield Sloane from those expectations.
"What's been good is for Sloane is to see how normal Serena is," said Smith, who was the first African-American woman in college to become an all-pro swimmer. "You can touch her. She's tangible, and it makes Sloane feel like she can do the same thing. Serena has a very small circle of friends, but I guess when you're in, you're in. It's inspired Sloane to be herself."
The two became friendly this spring, when Fernandez invited Stephens to join Williams at the Fed Cup tournament in the Ukraine. "I think it was an inspiration for Sloane to see Serena's work ethic," Fernandez said. "But it works both ways. Serena likes to be around the younger players and Sloane has such a bubbly personality."
The women work out together at the Home Depot Center and talk every few days. "She's like one of my really good friends," Stephens said. "Everyone thinks she's so mean, but she's like the greatest person ever. We're just young kids together. We never take anything too seriously. Tennis is a game."
Stephens is still finding her way, which accounts for an iPod playlist that includes Pink's "Misunderstood" and the "Miseducation of Lauryn Hill." But her biggest asset is the way she arms herself by being disarming. "Most of the girls try to do mean things to intimidate you," she said. "They take it so seriously. It's all about them. To me, it's just a job. Life's too short."
She knows it from experience. It's what keeps reminding her to have fun.