Earlier this year, I had the chance to speak with Sloane Stephens in New York. At the time, the 19-year-old American was promoting her new partnership with Bengay. We talked about her nascent pro career, her competitiveness on- and off-court, and how tennis has, literally, inhabited her dreams.
Justin diFeliciantonio: What got you started playing?
Sloane Stephens: I lived across the street from a country club. And my stepdad played. So it was easy and convenient. And I had summer camp there. It was fun. That was just how it started. And now it’s where it’s at now.
JD: When did you realize that you wanted to take tennis seriously?
SS: It was always very serious. But it wasn’t like, Oh, I’m trying to be a pro, or I’m trying to play in college. It wasn’t one of those things. My mom just let me play and let me do what I wanted to do. And then, when I got pretty good, she said, “Alright, what do you want to do?” And of course at the time I was like, “I’m not going to school.” [Laughing] So I ended up turning pro. But it wasn’t like a big decision. I never dealt with any of the stuff on the side. For me, it was just like, Alright, I guess I’m not going to college. And that was it.
JD: At what age?
SS: I was 16 when I turned pro. My mom and my uncle had talked about it, and they had talked to different agencies and what have you. And they decided to go with one, and the rest is history.
JD: Did you ever have any doubts?
SS: Not really. It was kind of weird at the beginning. I was thinking like, What if I’m so terrible playing pro tournaments and I suck and it’s bad? But now that I think about it, it’s like impossible to fail when you’re put into a situation like that. It was silly. But those are the things you think when you’re young.
JD: Impossible to fail?
SS: I wouldn’t say impossible to fail. But you can play so many tournaments. You can play any tournament you want. You can go anywhere you want. You’re gonna win somehow. Someone’s going to default. Someone’s going to retire. So it seems like it would be easy, right?
JD: So you had some measure of confidence when you started playing professionally.
SS: Yeah, I had been playing pretty well. I had played semis of a couple [junior] Grand Slams. I won three junior doubles slams in a row [in 2010]. So I didn’t feel like I was at the bottom of the totem pole or anything. I wasn’t down on it. It felt good to me.
JD: Now that you’re on the pro tour, how do you get ready for a match?
SS: I wake up in the morning like any other person. I warm-up, practice, and play. I eat probably a roast beef sandwich everyday—either a roast beef sandwich or a peanut butter and jelly. That’s like one consistent thing I do everyday.
JD: What do you do to get your mind to—
SS: Focus? iPod. Kindle. I don’t really talk to a lot of people when I’m about to play.
JD: Do you do any mental exercises? Like visualization?
SS: No, not really. I did them a lot when I was younger, because my mom’s a psychologist. We did a lot of focus, tunnel-vision type jam, because I was, like, severe not concentrating at all. I was everywhere. Now it’s better. My mom says, you have to stay focused for more than two minutes before you start doing something else.
JD: How do you motivate yourself?
SS: Just knowing that you can improve and get better. Everyone wants to get better. So in the morning when I’m like, I don’t want to do this, I do not want to go to practice—I have to get better, so I can be sitting up here on the 48th floor [at the London Hotel] looking at Central Park. That’s what motivates me to get better. So I can be better. So I can do what I want to do when I want to do it.
JD: What is it that you want to do?
SS: I want to do everything in the whole world [laughing]. I want to do anything I want to.
JD: You mean, you want to have the means to do anything you want to?
SS: No, I just want to be able to get up in the morning, get out of bed, and be like, Alright, I can go and do this. I ran 4k the other day in 21 minutes. That motivates me. I feel accomplished.
JD: I imagine you’re a competitive person.
SS: Very. I have a 13-year-old brother who’s six years younger than me. We’re competitive with everything.
The American teenager's biggest challenge yet in Paris awaits on Sunday: Former finalist and current U.S. Open champion Sam Stosur. (AP Photo)
SS: When my brother was born, and he was getting more attention because he was a baby. [Laughing]. And I was like, This is not going to work for me. And then, when we got older, we started playing sports and things. It’s who can finish their food first. Who’s going to finish their Gatorade first. Who’s going to get to the car and put their seatbelt on first.
JD: You’re not joking.
SS: No, I’m not kidding.
JD: You felt like you had to compete with a brother who was that much younger than you?
SS: Yes! This is what life is about! My mom and I compete. We all do. Who can get dressed faster. We do all kinds of stuff.
JD: So you grew up in a household where—did it always felt like a race?
SS: Yeah, that’s what’s fun about it. We do crazy things, and that’s fun. I don’t know, maybe other people are like, I’m not racing. But it’s fun! We would go swimming and race in the pool. My grandpa has four holes of golf outside of his house, and we would play golf and have no idea what we were doing. It was fun, so we tried to win.
JD: How does that competitiveness translate to your goals? Where you see yourself heading on the pro circuit?
SS: I haven’t really thought where I will be, or where I want to be in five years. None of that. I’ve learned that I can’t control a lot of things in life. So I just kind of go with the flow. Say I want to be at this place, or I want to be No. 1 in the world—sometimes you can’t control the things that happen. Like, I just feel where I’m supposed to be, I’ll end up. And if that’s No. 1 in the world, cool. If not, cool. I just let things happen.
JD: On to a different topic: What do you think your tennis says about you?
SS: Like my game? Well, it’s weird because when people see me play, they say I look so vicious and aggressive and crazy, all kinds of stuff. But then, when they meet me, they say, “You’re completely opposite of what you look like on the court.” So I don’t know. I get a lot of different feedback about how my tennis relates to me, because I don’t look like who I am on the court. ‘Cause I’m just normal. On the court it’s like, This is serious. This is game time. Put on your game face. But when I’m off the court, I’m like, Ok, cool. Back to life. I’m not super aggressive. I’m 19.
JD: When you’re off the court, do things that happened on-court ever come back to you?
SS: Yeah, I’ll be like, On that point, I should have done (whatever). And if I have time to practice, then I’ll practice that next week. Just depends. I’ll have, like, dreams about points I’ve played.
JD: You dream about tennis?
SS: Yeah, isn’t that weird? I’ve had dreams about points I’ve played, matches. I’ll have a match I’ve already played and see it again. Like, I played a match against Shahar Peer [in the second round] at last year’s U.S. Open. And in January [of this year] in Australia, I dreamed that I had played the match over again. It was crazy.
JD: So you dreamed you played the match?
SS: Yeah, but it had already happened. I know it already happened. So it was like, it happened over again.
JD: How detailed was it?
SS: Like it was a whole match. I knew exactly what I was doing. And then, when I woke up, I was like, What was I—what just happened? I remember everything from the interview to on-court to the press conference. It was like my whole day. I remember people’s faces I was seeing. It was like, Whoa, this is crazy.
JD: What other dreams do you have about tennis?
SS: Like places that I’ve been. I’ll walk into a tournament, things like that. I’ll dream about points. I’ll dream about practicing. I’ll dream about walking to a tournament, flying to a tournament, getting there.
JD: Last question: Is tennis just a game? Or is it more than that to you?
SS: Tennis is more than a game. Tennis can be a job. Tennis can be a game. It can be fun. It can be a hobby. It can be an activity. Tennis is only what you make it, for yourself. But for me, tennis is my life. And that’s all [smiling]…That was so profound, wasn’t it?!
Justin diFeliciantonio is TENNIS.com's gear editor.