- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sloane Stephens was 11 when she first saw Serena Williams in person. She still has the autograph to prove it.

With 29 Grand Slam titles and more than 530 career victories, Williams is the golden girl of tennis that every 19-year-old player grew up idolizing. Yet few share the sort of relationship with her that Stephens does now, a relationship that has transformed from hero to mentor to friend over the years.

“I just feel like I’ve known her forever,” Stephens said earlier this week. “But I don’t remember when we first talked or anything. When she first talked to me I was probably peeing on myself.”

Stephens has played professional tennis for less than three years, but already she has risen to No. 50 in the world rankings and reached the third round of multiple grand slams. The 19-year-old was 3-0 at the Citi Open entering a second-round doubles match Wednesday night.

While the youngest player in the WTA Top 100 is Hungarian Timea Babos, who was born in May 1993, Stephens is only a few months behind. Being a pro tennis player at 19 has advantages and disadvantages, so it helps that Stephens has one of the most accomplished teenage athletes in American history on her side. Williams won her first grand slam at 16 and captured six more slam titles — as well as an Olympic gold medal — before her 20th birthday.

Stephens hopes she can emulate parts of Williams’ game and have similar success.

“[Serena] is tough. She hangs in there, she never gives up, she fights, and that’s something I think everyone can kind of look up to,” Stephens said. “She could be losing horrifically and come back and win. I think the fight in her has really pushed her to be the best player she can be.”

Despite their difference in age, Williams and Stephens have many similarities. Both are from southeastern Florida. Both rely on a strong baseline game. Both routinely serve over 110 mph. And in each of their first five grand slam tournaments, Stephens won eight matches and Williams won 10.

They even share a sense of humor off the court. Stephens always makes an effort to find Williams when the two are at the same tournament, and they exchange Blackberry messages throughout the season.

“We just keep it goofy,” Stephens said. “She’s like the goofiest person I know.”

The pair hasn’t talked since Williams arrived in London for the Olympics, where she has won three matches in straight sets and will face Caroline Wozniacki in the quarterfinals later this week.

Stephens wanted to be right there with her friend and thought she had a good chance at qualifying for London as the fourth-ranked American. But Serena’s sister, Venus, took the last singles spot.

Instead, Stephens has quietly taken care of business as the No. 3 seed at the Citi Open.

Though she has fallen behind in each of her first three matches, even losing a set 6-0 against Michelle Larcher de Brito on Tuesday, she has come back every time. She uses a white armband to wipe the sweat off her face, battles through key points and celebrates each small victory with fist pump.

The 19-year-old quickly has become a fan favorite in the process, as each of her two singles matches on Grandstand Court 1 have drawn sizable crowds. Stephens is active on Twitter (“That’s where I find out all my gossip”) and said that some fans have told her they only came to Rock Creek Park to see her play.

“I just love being around people,” she said. “There’s a lot of young kids here, and it’s really important to have a good attitude, take pictures, sign autographs.”

Maybe one of those autographs will inspire another friendship someday, just as the signature that Williams gave Stephens eight years ago began their friendship.

“We get along so well,” Stephens said with a smile. “That’s my girl.”

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