Sloane Stephens has enjoyed a successful year on the tour and is hotly tipped for success
The 19-year-old will play Italy's Francesca Schiavone in the opening round of the U.S. Open
She is the daughter of former NFL player John Stephens and ex-swimmer Sybil Smith
Rising star looking to build on promising runs at Wimbledon and the French Open earlier this year
“Do I look like Serena? Like, come on. Seriously?” Sloane Stephens understandably rankles at such a comparison with one of the world’s greatest tennis players.
“You know, it’s kind of crazy, but it’s really not that bad. But when you hear it, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, did they just say that?’ ”
Only the laziest of observers could mistake the 19-year-old rising star for a Williams sister off the court. But on it, the similarities are striking.
Blessed with natural athleticism and steely determination allied to a powerful serve and forehand, Stephens shares many of the attributes that have helped Venus and Serena dominate the women’s game over the past 15 years.
Posters of the sisters, who have won 21 grand slam singles titles between them, adorned Stephens’ bedroom walls when she was growing up.
“I love them. Obviously they’re like the coolest people. They are the greatest tennis players ever to me,” she told CNN’s Open Court.
Venus works really hard and is a great role model for girls, she says, while Serena has become a close friend.
“We talk about everything … anything that comes to mind. We always have good conversations and we have a lot of things to talk about. So it works out.”
2012 has been a breakthrough year in Stephens’ fledgling career. She reached the second round of the Australian Open in January before making her Fed Cup debut for the U.S. alongside Serena against Ukraine in April.
Promising performances followed at both Wimbledon (reaching the third round) and at Roland Garros, where she achieved her best grand slam result to date, losing to U.S. Open champion Samantha Stosur in the last 16.
Results away from the grand slams have also been encouraging, with semifinal appearances at WTA events in Strasbourg in May and more recently in Washington D.C.
All of which has helped earn Stephens a top-50 ranking heading into the U.S. Open, where she meets Italy’s Francesca Schiavone in the opening round on Tuesday.
The former French Open champion and two-time quarterfinalist at Flushing Meadows beat Stephens in Strasbourg and will provide a stern examination of the young American’s evolving game.
“I’m working on so many different things. Coming to the net more, being more aggressive. I’m really working on my concentration. Staying focused. That’s like a big one for me,” she said.
Stephens has got a great attitude, says her coach David Nainkin, and doesn’t fear the big stage.
“Sloane is a phenomenal athlete and probably has one of the best forehands in the world. She has so many options when she plays. So it’s really about (improving) shot selection and channeling her power,” Nainkin says.
“She’s a great personality. She speaks very well … she’s fun to be around and she’s great for tennis.”
Stephens first picked up a racket when she was nine, catching the eye of coach and former men’s pro, Francisco Gonzalez at the Sierra Sport & Racquet Club in Fresno, California.
On his advice, her mother Sybil Smith decided to relocate the family to Florida to further Stephens’ ambitions, enlisting her at the Saviano High Performance Tennis Academy in Fort Lauderdale.
It was a smart move and provided the platform for a successful junior career which saw Stephens claim three consecutive junior grand slam doubles titles in 2010 at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and Flushing Meadows with Hungarian partner Timea Babos.
It was also proof of her exceptional sporting genes – her mother was a champion swimmer at Boston University while her biological father, John Stephens, who tragically died in a car crash in 2009, was a former NFL running back.
Smith and Stephens divorced when Sloane was a child, and she saw little of her father while growing up. But his death, aged 43, was a painful blow and followed the loss of her stepfather to cancer two years earlier.
“When my dad died it was a really tough time, but my whole family has been super supportive. I’ve come out a better person and I’ve learned so much at a young age,” Stephens said.
It was her stepfather who got Stephens hooked on tennis in the first place, Smith told CNN.
“He was very passionate about tennis. Sloane was always watching him at the club before we moved to Florida. The two of them really had a tennis bond,” Smith said.
Today, Smith, who also has a son, Shawn, tries to keep things as normal as they can be for her daughter, treading the line between protector and liberator.
“You know, sometimes I don’t travel because she really does need to feel the pressure on her own. But you keep your day-to-day routines the same and keep your family and your values the same and it works out pretty well,” she said.
Stephens’ maturity bodes well for her future, says James Blake, former American No. 1 and winner of 10 titles on the men’s ATP Tour.
“She seems fearless. She doesn’t appear to be in awe of anything, and that’s impressive at that age,” Blake said.
“When I came on tour, I was definitely a little shook by playing Pat Rafter and Andre Agassi … but she doesn’t seem like that and that’s impressive. It’s going to win her some matches later.”
For now though, Stephens is just looking forward to her home slam, where she reached the third round in her debut last year.
“Oh, it’s crazy. It’s just so many people and they all want you to win,” she said.
“It’s so nice just to be on court where everyone is cheering for you. A home slam is always really special and this year will be just as amazing as all the other ones.”