Regardless of what’s at stake, when 23-year-old Shelby Rogers misses a shot, her body language remains stoic, as though it never occupies her thoughts for too long. Winning a point seems to just fuel her unwavering resolve.
“I mean it’s never fun to lose don’t get me wrong,” says the South Carolina native. “But with tennis it’s sort of a big picture kind of sport and you have so many opportunities and so many matches throughout the year that you can’t really get too down or too excited about one particular match.”
Rogers, currently ranked No. 55, will face No. 27 seed Sara Errani in the first round of the U.S. Open on Monday. She has proven before that the bracketed numbers beside her opponents’ names don’t intimidate her when she upset three seeded players to reach the quarterfinals of this year’s French Open.
“It did give me a lot of confidence,” she says of her French Open quarterfinal run, when she was ranked in the triple digits. “Just that belief and trust in myself that okay, I can compete at this level, I have what it takes right now to beat these girls. I don’t have these gaping holes in my game.”
Rogers had an injury-plagued 2015 season that kept her absent from full practice sessions and matches but her game started to rebound early this year with two ITF semi-final appearances and a runner-up result on the clay courts in Rio de Janeiro. Then, came the American’s career breakthrough in Paris as the penultimate player to gain entry into the main draw.
The 5’9” Rogers exudes a stern game face, which is unlike her bubbly off-court personality. It’s perhaps an outward reflection of her inner fortitude; one where her focus is visible and her tenacity felt. An aggressive baseliner who likes to serve flat and set up points with her forehand, Rogers recalls her most satisfying shot an ace down the T that won her the second set against Karolina Pliskova in a fierce first-rounder at the French Open, which she admitted was her most difficult match of the tournament.
“Those first round nerves you know,” she said. “When you’re kind of starting the tournament and getting into the rhythm of things is I think most difficult for everyone.”
Rogers suddenly became a name to watch after the French Open. Her success in Paris quickly drew more media, new endorsement deals and a surge of social media followers who Rogers says, “actually like what I post now and I don’t feel like such a loser.” With time zone differences between Europe and the U.S., the attention didn’t fully settle in until she returned home when the grass court season had ended a few weeks later.
Did it become a distraction for her? “It was definitely overwhelming but it was a positive thing for me,” she said. “I never really had anything like that happen. The team around me, my coach, my parents, my agent, they all do a good job of sort of keeping me grounded and helping me deal with all that.”
Her success, however, dimmed throughout the summer tournaments where she was eliminated in every first round until last week’s Connecticut Open, which she said was not to be blamed on fatigue or her newfound fame.
“This post-French Open slump has been very exciting to read all over the place,” she said. “I’m not sure I was ever really falling apart. We switched surfaces, went straight to grass. A couple of tough draws in there and I still felt like I was playing OK and doing the right things. I didn’t see it as really a negative thing. You can’t win all matches.”
Rogers played World Team Tennis this summer for the San Diego Aviators with James Blake, Darija Jurak, Ryan Harrison and Raven Klaasen.
“She is very mature, and smart,” says Jurak, her WTT doubles partner. “She is a great team player, knows how to play doubles and reads the ball well. She also thinks like a champion already, she knows what she wants and it’s a huge mindset to have to be a top 20 player.”
Marc Lucero, who began coaching Rogers in Dec. 2014, said the biggest goal for her this year was to keep healthy and build her fitness so she can put in the hours on the court that will translate into match victories.
Rogers relocated two years ago from Boca Raton, Fla., where she still maintains training grounds to work with Lucero at the USTA tennis facility in Carson, Calif. Her typical training day is five hours long and combines drills, match play and fitness. Lucero has mainly focused on developing her fundamentals this year. “Serve and the first shot are key as well as return of serve,” he says. “I mean those are the shots you hit every single point and those are the shots I think are really important to spend time on.”
An avid hockey fan and cinema lover, Rogers finds the time for both in her off time. She recently started an online bachelor’s degree in psychology at Indiana University East, which she said has consumed a lot of her free time. (The WTA and Indiana University East have a partnership that gives professional tennis players a chance to complete a university education while on the tour. Venus Williams, who was instrumental in forging the deal, was the first to graduate with a business diploma last August which took her four years to complete.)
Why psychology? “I wanted to do something that would help me with my career at the present time and the mental aspect is a huge part of tennis and I figured that would help me in some regard,” she says.
The challenge for Rogers at the U.S. Open will be to establish similar winning momentum in the opening round against a consistent, heavy topspin-hitting Errani who is quick and disguises her shots well but continues to suffer from one of the weakest serves on the tour.
Rogers entered last year’s U.S. Open through qualifying and reached the round of 32 in the main draw before falling in straight sets to then-No. 2-ranked Simona Halep. Her plan in New York this year is to serve more consistently, maintain aggression at the baseline and avoid the trap of placing her focus on results.
“I’ve had a great year so far so I definitely want to keep doing what I’ve been doing and not really try to change too much or think about how I did last year and try to not add pressure,” she said. “Just treat it like any other tournament and try to keep the momentum from what I’ve done so far going.”
Something else that won’t change is a phrase Rogers started saying while in Paris, one that helps to erase any significance a number besides an opponent’s name may have. It’s an affirmation she often repeats to herself in matches.
“You belong here.”