At 19, Sloane Stephens is quieting the nerves of American tennis officials who’ve been anxiously awaiting their next potential top 10 star.
Stephens, who has been on the upswing since last season, is currently enjoying a career-high ranking of No. 25, and is seeded 29th at this year’s Australian Open. She’s the third-highest ranked American woman behind third-ranked Serena Williams and 20th-ranked Varvara Lepchenko, and is ranked one spot ahead of Venus Williams.
Playing in her seventh Grand Slam tournament – and second Australian Open - Stephens has reached at least the third round in five of those appearances. Her best result at a major was a journey to the fourth round at Roland Garros last year.
Working towards, hopefully, equalling or bettering that effort, Stephens moved into the third round in Melbourne on Thursday with a 6-4 6-3 win over fellow 19-year-old Kristina Mladenovic of France.
It was the second time Stephens had played the 98th-ranked Mladenovic, and their last encounter left her in tears. The scene was the 2009 Roland Garros juniors semifinals, and Mladenovic won the day en route to winning the title.
Mladenovic, however, didn’t have the stamina and power to match Stephens this time around.
Stephens delivered 21 winners to 10 for Mladenovic, and forced Mladenovic into 24 errors. The Frenchwoman could only push Stephens to nine forced errors, while Mladenovic had 38 unforced errors to 21 for Stephens.
“I didn’t play that great,” said Stephens.
“It’s hard playing someone who just hits such big shots, big serves, big forehands, and then the point’s over. So it’s was tough to get a rhythm. I just figured ‘get some balls in play and you’ll get some errors if you keep the ball in the court’.
“It’s tough when you’re not playing that great and your mind like isn’t there; it’s definitely tough to win a match that way. But when you can focus in on a certain thing, like just getting the ball back in play, I think the concentration, confidence, and willingness to run every ball down helps. Today, I was determined to get the next ball back.”
Breaking through to finish the 2012 season ranked No. 38, Stephens was the youngest player inside the top 50 at the beginning of January. Beginning this year in style, Stephens reached the quarterfinals in Brisbane and semifinals in Hobart.
Stephens liked to reward herself for meeting set goals, with her latest aim being to put forth consistent performances, which she’s done.
“It’s nice to be in the third round of a tournament and (in) the quarters the last two weeks,” Stephens said.
“I told my friend today that I can’t wait to get those Jimmy Choo shoes I promised myself. They’re not heels, they’re flats and they’re white with studs. (I said) if I stay focused and concentrate then I’ll reward myself with Jimmy Choo shoes.”
Stephens admitted, however, that it’s getting difficult to solely focus on the Jimmy Choo flats, which run between $350 to $550 (USD), considering the teases she’s facing each time she walks outside her hotel door.
“It’s pretty hard when I’m staying at the Hyatt and right next door is Louis Vuitton and Gucci,” said Stephens, who will play either 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova or fellow teen Laura Robson in the next round.