- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2011

After playing in this week’s Citi Open and the Mercury Insurance Open in San Diego, Sloane Stephens will return home to finally celebrate her high school graduation.

Stephens had to suspend the occasion because of a spring schedule that left little time for academics. After spending 12 weeks in Europe to play in the French Open and Wimbledon, the 18-year-old from Plantation, Fla., took time off to visit her grandparents and relax with what she described as “normal kid activities.” But the short break will be followed by a flurry of events leading up to the U.S. Open at the end of August.

“I played in Lexington [last] week, didn’t do as well, but it was my first tournament back, so I wasn’t that disappointed,” Stephens said. “I’ve just been training a lot. I took some time off, but now I’m playing again, and I’m ready.”

Stephens took the court at the Tennis Center at College Park for an evening match against fellow American Varvara Lepchenko on Monday. A rain delay that suspended play for several hours pushed her start back from midafternoon.

Although she is ranked No. 131 in the world, Stephens still is completing the transition between junior and professional tennis. As the youngest player in almost any locker room, she still is in awe of the older players. It still means a lot when they take a moment to say hi.

But the opportunity to play among her favorite stars - she named Venus and Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters and Marion Bartoli as the players she looks up to most - has helped her elevate her game.

“I haven’t had any blowouts or anything. I think that’s helped a lot, given me a lot of confidence and a lot of experience through playing all of them,” Stephens said. “It’s different being on the Tour than playing in juniors. Everyone’s so professional. No one is going to give you anything. It’s hard work. It’s tough, but I think I’ve gained a lot from playing with the top players, and I’m really happy about that.”

Stephens took up tennis at the age of 9, and until she was a teenager, she viewed the sport as a hobby.

“My mom needed me to do something after school because I would just sit at home and play video games, like any other kid,” Stephens said. “It got serious when I was 15 or 16 and agents started looking at me.

“It got a little bit stressful, but once I made the decision, it was so much easier. Now I’m just able to play.”

Since receiving a qualifying wild card to her first WTA event, the 2008 Sony Ericsson Open, Stephens has made a name for herself on the junior level while gaining experience as a professional. In the summer of 2009, she played World Team Tennis for the New York Buzz, where her teammates included up-and-coming stars Mallory Burdette, Ryan Lipman, Evan King, Alex Domijan and Christina McHale.

Stephens won three Junior Grand Slam titles in 2010, all in doubles, partnering with Timea Babos of Hungary. Her first victory on the ITF circuit came in May at the Camparini Gioielli Cup in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

As young as she is, Stephens is accustomed to expectations. Even as a high school student, she has become used to fielding questions that many in college shy away from - questions about her professional future.

“I don’t know if I’m the future of American tennis,” she said. “I don’t know who’s the future of American tennis. When the time comes and everyone says you made it, that’s pretty awesome. But there’s so many other people.

“[People say] American tennis is dead, but it’s not. You have to give us some time to regroup a little bit because we had the best players in the world, Venus and Serena. I think once I get going a little bit and start playing, this year and next year, I can see if I’m the future.”

Her trip to Washington will provide an opportunity to spend time with family, visit the White House for the first time, and reconnect with fellow tennis players she hasn’t seen in a few weeks. After the San Diego tournament and her graduation celebration, she will compete in Cincinnati and New Haven, Conn., before the U.S. Open.

In the fall, when she has time, she can set her sights on college.

“I’m going to take online classes at Kaplan,” Stephens said. “That’ll be as much college experience as I’m going to get - with my computer.”

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