INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Can you be so focused that you fool everyone into believing that you’re totally calm? Jamie Hampton seems to be blessed with that skill. The fast-walking, fast-talking, fast-swinging Alabama native had everyone on Court 7 marveling this morning at how cool she looked in the clutch during her three-set win over Su-Wei Hsieh.
“Does she get bothered by anything?” the man behind me asked, sounding a little awed by Hampton’s unruffled aura.
“That’s what it takes, you can’t let things bother you in tennis,” his deep-thinking friend answered.
These wise words, whatever their practical value, would probably make Hampton happy, because the 23-year-old admitted today that while being intense comes naturally, staying calm is something that she's still working on.
“I’m always looking to bring a good bit of intensity to the match or the court,” she said today, in her trademark inflectionless, rapid-fire monotone. “I think as I get a little bit older and in these situations more frequently, I will probably settle down a bit, get more comfortable with the atmosphere and the environment.”
Hampton could talk a mile a minute if you timed her, but she’s no blabbermouth. Rather, she comes across as a shy person who wants to get her sentences over with as soon as possible. Certainly she’s not concerned about being a star, or even much of a personality.
Asked what the coolest thing about her was, Hampton said, “I’m pretty boring, actually. I wouldn’t consider myself cool at all....My life pretty much revolves around tennis. I eat, sleep, and drink tennis. There’s not too much time for anything else for me.”
When this one-tracked-minded woman was challenged to name who won the Oscar for best picture this year, she thought she had it nailed.
“Argon,” she said.
In other words, the reserved, tomboyish, all-business Hampton is the polar opposite of her higher-profile, higher-ranked, more effervescent fellow American, Sloane Stephens. They might meet in the next round, and have split their two match-ups so far.
It’s tempting to make the anti-trendy claim that Hampton could be the better player in the long run, but I don’t think that’s true. There’s a reason why Stephens is ranked 44 places higher despite being three years younger. Sloane has more speed and explosive power, when she decides to use it. But Hampton’s progress has been slowed by wrist and back injuries over the years. She had wrist surgery at 19, and she says that these days it’s a full-time job just to keep her back in shape.
Twice this year, Hampton has surprised me with the quality of her hitting. She plays the way she walks and talks, with no-nonsense dispatch—even her fist-pump is usually more of a twitch than a full-on exhortation. When Hampton gets a look at her favorite shot, her forehand, she guns it, and she can hit it past anyone. Including the world’s best players. Most notably in 2013, Hampton took a set from Victoria Azarenka at the Australian Open, even as her back forced her to take a medical timeout. In typical down-to-earth fashion, Hampton refused to talk about that match as a moral victory today. You get the feeling that her physical struggles have grounded her deeply.
“Everybody says you get a lot of confidence from that,” Hampton said of her Aussie loss to Vika, “but I just was really disappointed to be that close and to have something that you work so hard for just kind of fail you, like my body.”
Hampton’s other strong performance in defeat this season came against Agniezska Radwanska in Auckland in January. For two sets, she out-hit the world No. 4, only to tighten up and give them both away in tiebreakers. Just as surprising was how calm she looked through much of that match, before suddenly showing us that she wasn’t calm at all—she was just really intense. Maybe Hampton can fool herself into being both someday.