NEW YORK -- Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown of next great American hope. Ask Melanie Oudin, who's scratched out just 33 wins in 86 singles matches since her star-kissed run to the U.S. Open quarterfinals in 2009. The pressure of expectations can prove unbearable in a sport that eats its young.
Which is why Sloane Stephens is more than happy to elude the spotlight, though the luxury of anonymity may not be tenable much longer at her current pace. The 18-year-old wild card from Plantation, Fla., won her first career main-draw match at a major tournament Tuesday afternoon, outlasting Hungarian qualifier Reka-Luca Jani for a 6-2, 3-6, 7-6 (3) victory. The result ensures Stephens will be the newest -- and youngest -- member of the WTA's top 100. But it's Stephens' carefree personality that suggests she may thrive where other fancied prospects have stalled.
The recent high school graduate lists shopping, sleeping and eating as her hobbies. She is "obsessed" with nail polish -- three of her responses during Tuesday's post-match news conference were devoted to the shade of gold by Chanel she chose for her U.S. Open debut -- and delivers an absorbing blend of Confucian profundity, junior-year poetry and fortune-cookie wisdom via her Twitter feed. (Samplings: "Things fall apart so that other things can fall together," and "Everything you've waited for usually comes the second you stop looking for it.") While many of her cohorts were playing tennis as soon as they could pick up a racket, Stephens was nine when she was introduced to the sport by her mother, Sybil Smith, who was the first African-American female in Division I history to make the All-American first team in swimming while at Boston University in 1988. (Her father, the late John Stephens, was a former NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year as a running back with the New England Patriots.)
Stephens is enjoying her most successful run of play since turning pro in October 2009. She captured her first ITF title at the Camparini Gioielli Cup in May, dispensing of Wimbledon semifinalist Sabine Lisicki along the way. A few weeks later, she made it through the French Open qualifying draw before falling in the first round to Elena Baltacha. Her breakthrough performance came earlier this month in San Diego, where she collected her first top-20 scalp against Julia Goerges en route to a first WTA quarterfinal appearance.
On Tuesday, Stephens cruised through the first set in 31 minutes while the 222nd-ranked Jani struggled with nerves in her Grand Slam debut. ("Normally I'm the one who isn't experienced against someone who has been playing forever," Stephens observed.) But things rapidly came apart for Stephens in the second set: she committed 14 unforced errors and failed to capitalize on each of six break-point chances while Jani began dialing in her serve and attacking the American's backhand.
After rallying from breaks down at 0-1, 3-4 and 5-6 in the third, Stephens was able to tap into her Grand Slam experience during the decisive breaker, bringing herself back to the point where things unraveled against Baltacha in Paris. "At 3-all in the tiebreaker, I was like, I'm not going to get nervous. I'm going to go for my shots, execute, do what I have to do," she recalled. "And I won every point after that."
After Jani pushed a forehand long on match point, Stephens raised both hands aloft, waved to the partisan crowd and found her mother, brother and grandparents in the bleachers overlooking Court 11. She will be the underdog in Thursday's second-round match with 23rd-seeded Shahar Peer, but Stephens insists she's already exceeded her expectations -- that everything else is just icing on the cake. "I just try to play and be happy," she said. "Today was definitely gravy."