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Anatomy of a Fascinating Disaster: Fire Walk With Me

Thomas Coex/GettyImages Sloane Stephens

Almost Famous

The making of Sloane Stephens, tennis star

Sloane Stephens was sitting in the shade outside Arthur Ashe Stadium, telling me that her life is normal — insisting upon it, really — when Mom called to say that soon there was a players’ meeting in the referees’ office, and that she had to be ready to appear in the stadium for Kids’ Day, and then there was that American Express event — but first an agent was on his way with a man who needed her to sign some things. Right on cue, a fit young guy from her agency and a large man carrying a duffle bag that appeared to be holding a dead body, or maybe ice hockey gear, appeared in front of us. The large man introduced himself as the owner of a business that authenticated autographs and memorabilia, and he explained to Stephens that she, or her people, had just closed a deal to have her sign some things.

Hundreds of things, it turned out. He pulled out a massive stack of notepad-size photographs. This, he explained, was hardly half of it; he had only brought with him 150 pictures and posters, and 51 tennis balls. (“Why 51?” Stephens asked. “Cans of three,” Authentication Man answered.)

“Are there a lot of people asking for my signature?”

“Hope so,” the man said.

“I mean, shit!

Stephens is 19 years old. She came into last year’s U.S. Open as the 106th best player in the world. Since then, her rank has jumped 60 positions, and her reputation has risen even faster. She has been slated for stardom. I had my doubts about how typical her life is — despite her efforts to convince me, or maybe herself, that it is. In a span of 30 minutes, she used the word normal a dozen times. Playing on the legendary main court at Roland Garros during the French Open was “just kind of normal.” The U.S. Open was “hectic because it’s a home slam … but other than that, it’s just kind of — just kind of the same.” I mentioned that I sat across from her image on the subway on my way to meet her and noticed her picture on the bridge down to the tennis center. She thought that was nice, but not a big deal. “People are like, ‘Oh my god, I rode to work with you today,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, cool!’ But other than that,” she said, “it’s pretty normal.” I asked her about her relationship with the Williams sisters. She said it was “just normal friendship, regular.” I tried to wrap my head around the idea of normal friendship with Serena Williams.

It was clear, in any event, that being paid to sign her name hundreds of times was not yet normal.

Stephens carefully picked a Sharpie of the right bluntness, debated where on the picture to sign, loosened her wrist, and slowly swooped down in a large S, looping across the page and punctuating her signature with a large heart. The man from the authentication company, who later let drop that he had just been out in Los Angeles “signing with Pete Sampras,” watched her carefully replicate her signature and mentioned that Sampras signed autographs with remarkable speed.

“Someone should time me,” Stephens said.

The agent pulled out his phone to use as a stopwatch. “How long does it take Sloane to do 10 autographs?” She began to race the clock.

“Sloane, are you OK with me taking a photograph as an authentication?” the man asked as she signed.

“That’s totally fine.” After a moment, she added, “What if I said ‘no’? That would be really epic.”

The mix of graceful and impish tendencies is a big reason why Stephens was hunched over the little table signing her name over and over, a big reason why she is so sought-after, even though, right now, she is ranked just inside the top 50. She is not the top American; she’s not even the top young American. (That’s 20-year-old Christina McHale, ranked 24.) But Stephens has obvious talent and unusual charisma. While she signed, the man explained what that meant to him. People wanted the real thing. They wanted to know she had touched the pen. He told her that they thought she was going to be a star. Stephens listened to all of this and punctuated her speech with polite uh-huhs and cools. As he packed his giant camera away, she called out, “Nice to meet you!” with the brightness of a good-bye. But Authentication Man didn’t leave. He had more for her to sign.

The new normal was getting weirder all the time. Stephens methodically moved through the stack until she came to a picture of Caroline Wozniacki, shiny and blonde, staring her in the face. “This the wrong girl!” Stephens declared.

The man pulled a stack of large posters out of the bag and set them in front of her. Stephens looked at the poster of herself and her Bambi eyes became bigger. She looked up. “Can I have one of these?”

The grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center were pulsating on Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day. There were kids dripping ice cream, kids in tears, kids vibrating with impatience as they looked for Roger Federer or Venus Williams while holding giant tennis balls. The lineup in the stadium included a “Call Me Maybe” flash mob featuring the swimmer Missy Franklin. If you went outside the gates, though, to a stretch of practice courts by the ramp to the subway, you could actually see some tennis. On the far end of the row of courts, not long before noon, Stephens sat on a bench by the net, wearing tiny little shorts and a T-shirt that read “LOVE.” She was breathing hard and sipping from a bottle of orange Gatorade. At her back, separated by a chain-link fence, stood a girl. The girl was maybe 13 years old, African American, large but with childish features. She inched toward Stephens, trying not to attract her attention. Her mother held up her phone to take a picture of her daughter with the back of Stephens’s head. She waved her daughter right, right, and then a little to the left. Her daughter leaned this way and that, sending glances back at Stephens to make sure she wasn’t noticing. Her mother clearly found the whole thing ridiculous. Finally, the mother said to Stephens in a loud voice, “Would you mind turning around for a photograph?” Embarrassment bloomed across the daughter’s face as Stephens slowly turned her head. “Suuuure,” Stephens said, with a hint of exhaustion and reluctance. But then she smiled. It’s an amazing smile, full and dimpled, softening her slender, angular face. She has perfect teeth. The girl smiled, too; the picture was taken; and the girl half-ran, half-tiptoed away, elated.

For a moment, there were no spectators, only silence. Stephens slowly turned her head back and sat very still. Sweat glistened on her face.

“My face is burning like a Hot Pocket,” she said to her coach, David Nainkin.

“What?” Nainkin asked.

“My face is burning,” she said, her voice more serious, and slowly gathered herself to return to the court.

It was her second practice of the day. Nainkin, who recently began working with Stephens, is trying to encourage her to take the openings that her powerful groundstrokes create, and he wanted her to work on her swinging volleys. Stephens glided toward the net, turning her powerful shoulders before taking the ball out of the air around neck-level. Her racket moved like a whip; the ball moved even faster. Nainkin pointed out a target, a little pyramid of tennis balls close to the opposite service line, which I hadn’t noticed. I’m not sure Stephens had either; one of her shots hit the fence. Others sailed out by yards. Nainkin looked focused but bemused.

After a while, he called her back to the baseline to hit some serves. She tossed the ball up with a casual motion. I cannot describe the sound her racket made against the ball. It was ballistic. On the next court over, two players were also serving. One of them, Tsvetana Pironkova, was a semifinalist at Wimbledon two years ago. Pironkova’s racket made nice little thwacks against the ball. Stephens was doing something else, hitting bass against the altos on the next court over. As soon as Stephens started to serve, people started to gather to watch her. The chain-link fence along the practice court is a net that catches all sorts of passersby, from avid fans to couples walking through the park. Hearing the thump of the balls, kids came over to hang on the fence and stare. As soon as Stephens was done, the crowd began to move on, walking to the stadium, the train, the next practice court. Stephens didn’t look at them, packing her rackets away in her bag. One skinny boy, no more than 7 or 8 years old, shouted, “Hey, Venus!” Stephens didn’t look up.

Because Stephens is a powerful, female, African American tennis player, and because tennis remains a mostly white sport, her name comes up quickly when people discuss the State of American Tennis in a post–Williams sisters world. These conversations tend to be pretty ridiculous, as Stephens is quick to point out. “I don’t even know why people want to talk about it,” Stephens said. “They’re both still playing” — and dominating. No one has been better, or hungrier, than Serena this summer, and even though Venus has been slowed by an autoimmune disorder, she is still more than capable of winning big matches. Still, the comparisons won’t go away. Race is a subtext. So is the public’s insatiable desire for whatever comes next.

Stephens’s background is not like the legendary beginnings of the Williams sisters — the inner-city courts, the crazy/genius father, the relentless and obsessive molding of champions. Stephens started playing tennis when she was 9, at the country club across the street from her childhood home in Fresno, California. She didn’t take it too seriously at first, she says, but she kept playing when her family moved to Florida, and she has thrived within the USTA system. Her mother, Sybil Smith, a psychologist, was the first African American female to become a first-team All-American swimmer. She is the strongest presence in Stephens’s life. Sloane didn’t know her father, John Stephens, a former NFL running back, growing up. Her parents divorced when she was young. It wasn’t until John learned that he had a degenerative disease that he and Sloane started to speak by phone. He died in a car accident just before the 2009 U.S. Open. As if that weren’t hard enough, Smith told the New York Times‘s Karen Crouse that, after John’s death, Sloane learned from the Internet that her father had been arrested twice for sexual assault (the second charge was pending when he died; to the first, in 1994, he pleaded guilty). “I’m telling you, John was a very good man with addiction issues that were never addressed early on,” Smith told Crouse. However traumatic that experience was for Stephens, she appears to have handled it with strength.

Stephens carries herself with a preternatural poise. If she does share something with the Williams sisters, whom she talks about with admiration and gratitude in her voice, it’s a quality of self-possession. It manifests itself in different ways from theirs — it’s more accessible — but it’s undeniable. She will probably need it.

Tennis is a solitary sport and the tour can be a lonely place. Stephens is extroverted and intensely social — she says that the first thing she does when she wakes up is check her Twitter account. (After she reached the round of 16 at Roland Garros, she charmed the press by saying, “I’m excited, because now I’m going to have more Twitter followers.”) Yet she doesn’t have many close friends on tour, she said. She spends most of her time on the road with any family members traveling with her. “I don’t really venture out with any of the girls or anything like that,” she said. I asked her if the other girls do. “I don’t know. Maybe. Kind of. Sort of.” She is away from home for most of the year.

Women’s tennis had such serious (and visible) problems with burnout that it instituted an age-eligibility rule. The rule is one reason why, at 19, Stephens is still considered young in a sport that was once dominated by teenagers. The WTA has created an education program to help young players prepare for the financial, physical, and mental pressures of a life on the tour, the tour’s CEO, Stacey Allaster, told me, and she pointed to the results: longer careers, fewer players who experience some kind of crisis. She described “dedicated staff members” and hotlines, “educational modules” and meetings. It all sounded professional and helpful. At the same time, the fact is that no program can totally prepare a young person for what her life might become. Female athletes in other sports don’t face what an ascendent tennis player does: the pressure to perform alone on a huge stage with high financial stakes, not once every four years (as with the Olympics) but four times every year.

A year ago, Stephens reached the third round at the U.S. Open. She followed that result up by making it into the second week at the French Open and with a third-round finish at Wimbledon. She has never beaten a top-10 player.

During the last year, Stephens has outplayed high-ranked players for long stretches at a time, but her game has deserted her at times, too. Last week, she played the 11th-ranked player in the world, Marion Bartoli, in New Haven. Stephens lost the first set 6-1, won the second 6-0, and was up 3-0 in the third before losing 6-3. I asked Stephens what happened. “She came out playing really well,” Stephens said. “I played some good games, then she — I was still playing well, it was kind of going back and forth, she played a great third set, and that was pretty much it.” Aha. I brought up some comments Stephens has made about her concentration lapses in the past, but she cut me off. “Yeah, I think I said that in two press conferences, and then everyone was like, ‘Oh, you’re ADD.’ No … I don’t think concentration was to blame for that at all.”

Her U.S. Open first-round match, in Louis Armstrong Stadium, was against Francesca Schiavone. Schiavone is 13 years older than Stephens and a former French Open champion. As the 22nd seed, the Italian was technically favored, but Stephens was certainly capable of beating her — and she did, in straight sets, 6-3, 6-4. It wasn’t the cleanest match. Schiavone is a fighter, and Stephens tightened up, especially with a couple of match points. But the American was clearly the better player, at times thrillingly so. On her last match point, she shot a forehand down the line and flashed the smile. It lit the crowd’s eruption.1

Stephens is not going to win a slam as a teenager, but the bigger expectation, the reason people are banking on her, is that her talent and her personality will steady, as well as fuel, her ascent. She is dealing with AmEx ads and kids wearing “Team Sloane” T-shirts, interviews and agents, the long and exhausting sprint of self-promotion. At the same time, I noticed that when she left the practice court, she filled her arms with half a dozen abandoned plastic water bottles and carried them to a recycling bin. It was a tiny gesture, probably meaningless, but it stood out. She has a team of people to help her, but she will take care of the courts herself.

As she walked back toward the stadium, people picked her out of the crowd, even if they didn’t yet know why. Two women stopped her in the path. “Can we take a picture with you?” one asked. Stephens obliged.

Then the woman asked, “What’s your name?”

She answered, simply, “Sloane.”

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas