MASON, Ohio — Sloane Stephens made no secret of enjoying the relative anonymity of playing overseas during the last three months. Now back in America preparing for the U.S. Open, the 20-year-old says she’s had to quickly adjust to the well-meaning but aggressive fans who are in constant pursuit of photos, autographs or any opportunity to be close to the 17th-ranked Stephens.
After reaching the semifinals of the Australian Open, the fourth round of the French Open and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon this year — and making headlines for critical comments about Serena Williams — Stephens’ profile is at an all-time high.
“[I]t’s way more intense than last year,” Stephens said after beating Petra Martic on Monday to set up a second-round match against Maria Sharapova at the Western & Southern Open on Tuesday night. “Last year, it was, ‘Oh, my God, I love you. Me and my mom watched you on TV.’ Now, it’s parents pushing their kids, like, ‘Go.’ The other day this girl was on crutches, and the mom was like, ‘Run!’ I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ That’s how crazy it is. It was a lot more mellow and sweeter [last year]. Like, ‘Oh, I’m your favorite player? That’s so cute.’ Now, it’s like people are elbowing each other and it’s way more intense.”
Stephens recounted some of the scarier fan experiences since returning to North America last month at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C.
“In D.C., some girl was hitting me with a racket because I wasn’t signing her ball,” Stephens said. “Then one mom pulled me by my ponytail. The other day I got marker all over my arm from some kid. Just yesterday some kid fell and skinned his whole knee and [there was] blood on the ground.”
The energy can be overwhelming for the laid-back California native, who has had to put up her guard. While I watched her practice for 30 minutes before her match on Monday, a small group of 20 fans stood alongside the court sweating it out to get her autograph. When Stephens finished, she quickly packed up her bag and left the court without making eye contact with any of the kids or offering the “Sorry, guys, I have to get ready for my match” excuse that so many players use. As Stephens – who told ESPN The Magazine earlier this year that she was “devastated” when Serena and Venus Williams snubbed her autograph request as a 12-year-old — walked away, the kids looked confused and the parents shook their heads.
When asked whether things are different from how she thought they’d be, Stephens said: “I mean, I never wanted to be popular. “Like, ‘Oh, I want people to want my autograph.’ It’s never been like that. I don’t mind signing autographs. It’s fine. But when they just get out of hand, it’s too much.”
Stephens admitted that it’s hard for her to connect with fans now.
“There’s no interacting,” she said. “It’s survival.”
The limelight comes with being a young, recognizable face with loads potential in American tennis. Stephens is already bracing for even more attention when the U.S. Open begins in less than two weeks in New York.
“I don’t plan on going outside because I know that I will probably not make it out alive,” Stephens said.
As for the Open itself, Stephens is acutely aware of the expectations for her as the No. 2 American behind Serena Williams. She’ll be expected to replicate her Grand Slam success on home soil, but all she wants to do is enjoy the experience.
“I know that I want to improve my ranking, I want to get better and I want to end the year with a bang,” she said. “But I definitely don’t want to put that extra pressure on myself to make quarters at the Open or make the semis or something like that because I know, obviously, at a home Slam, it’s definitely really tough.
“So I want to go out and enjoy myself and not stress myself out too much about the whole situation. Just play and have fun.”