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When she was young, Sloane Stephens idolized Serena Williams, papering her bedroom walls with posters of the tennis star. Today, at age 20, Stephens is one of Williams’s fledgling rivals.

The two have met in competition several times. In 2013, Stephens upset Williams at the Australian Open, the season’s first grand slam. At the last slam of the season, the U.S. Open, Williams took revenge in the fourth round, winning 6-4, 6-1, and then went on to win the tournament.

Both of Stephens’s performances were impressive, especially at the end of the year, when Williams was arguably playing some of the best tennis of her celebrated career.

The rivalry makes a compelling story: Both women are standouts in American tennis and both had success at a young age (Williams won her first Grand Slam at 17). When commentators and fans talk about the duo, Stephens is often named the heir apparent. She brushes off that comparison, however. And she’s quick to dismiss reports that her relationship with Williams is (or ever was) tense. “My relationship with Serena is great,” says the Florida native. “Serena and I have been Fed Cup teammates, and there are no issues between us at all.”

Stephens’s long-term goal is to be the best women’s tennis player in the world. The next step, she says, is breaking into the top 10. After the U.S. Open, Stephens’s strong performance bumped her world ranking from 16th to 13th.

Stephens and those close to the game know she has the physical strength and shotmaking ability to be one of the greats. What’s required now, she says, is an even higher level of mental concentration and consistency — characteristics that require practice, patience, and lots of self-confidence.

And if Stephens ever needs a boost, she should remember what her idol, Serena Williams, said about her after their dramatic U.S. Open match in September. “I don’t think she has to work on anything. I think she’s at the next level.”

Experience Life | Here in the States, you’ve been called “the future of women’s tennis.” That’s a lot of pressure. How do you deal with that?

Sloane Stephens | For now, I’m just playing for me. I don’t try to shoulder American women’s [tennis] because that is just added pressure I don’t need. If I look at it as “I’m just going to play my best today,” then I know the results will come. If I eventually become the top-ranked American, then that’s great!

EL | How does it feel when someone compares you to another great athlete or says something like, “You’re going to be the next Serena Williams!” Is it a compliment? Is it patronizing?

SS | Of course it’s a compliment to be compared to one of the greatest champions the sport has ever seen, but I actually think it’s pretty ridiculous that I’m compared to Serena. I’m 17 Grand Slams short of her [record] and I’m not even in the WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] Top 10 yet! It doesn’t add more pressure because I don’t look at myself as the next Serena. I am my own person, and I will be the next Sloane Stephens.

EL | Tennis, as a sport, has a lot of unique pressures and challenges: You’re alone on the court, you’re being watched by a very sizeable audience, and the game is always a bit different depending on the surface (hard, clay, grass). How do you prepare for these challenges? 

SS | I actually love that tennis is an individual sport. I welcome the added pressure of being alone on the court because that pressure is what makes tennis one of the best sports in the world. I have found that the best way to psychologically prepare for pressure situations is to just admit that nerves are part of the game. I’m definitely not one of those players who claim they don’t get nervous.

I think some players try to adjust their games too much depending on the surface. I’ve had success on all the surfaces, and I really didn’t change my game too much. Some surfaces are more physically demanding than others, but it is most important to mentally prepare for the different surfaces. I always focus on just playing my game and accepting the differences in the surfaces. The players who complain when they get bounces or when the ball skids off the lines are usually the players who struggle with switching surfaces.

EL | What do you do to be in the best mental and emotional shape you can be in for each match?   

SS | It is definitely a work in progress for me. I think I’m becoming mentally stronger every week, but I know it is still an area of my game I need to improve. Sticking to routines has been one of the keys to my being mentally prepared for each match. Some of those routines include eating the same meals, listening to music before my matches, and spending time alone before I go on court.

EL | You tend to perform your best on the court when the pressure is the highest. That seems to be one of the characteristics that distinguishes great players from good players. Can you talk about the importance of the mental game in being among the best of the best?

SS | It has been a gift and a curse for me. Of course it’s great to have played my best tennis on the biggest stages, but I would love to play my best tennis on every stage. One of the keys for me to winning big matches on big stages has been believing that I belong there. If I go into a match thinking I probably can’t beat this player, then I’ve lost the match before it’s even begun.

EL | Describe your training schedule.

SS | On average, I train six days a week, for about four hours per day. I spend roughly three hours on court and one hour on fitness. I will also spend an hour on physical therapy three days per week.

EL | What do you eat?  

SS | My diet often depends on what I have going that day. If I have a match or practice, I will make sure to eat a combination of carbs and protein. If I have the day off, I will eat more protein and fewer carbs. I was never too concerned with diet at the start of my career, but I have since learned how important it is. I definitely avoid soda. I try to avoid sweets as well, but sometimes I can’t help myself.

EL | It’s been said that women’s tennis today is more about power than anything else — power that typically comes with age. You’re 20, and no one currently ranked in the WTA Top 10 is under 23. Do you think you have the kind of power it takes to break the Top 10?

SS | I agree that women’s tennis today is more powerful than in past generations, but technique and strategy will always have a place in tennis. I also believe that I’m more than powerful enough to break the WTA Top 10. As most critics of the game would say, I am one of the more powerful players on tour. There are many aspects of my game that need work, but I wouldn’t say power is one of them.

EL | How else do you think the women’s game has changed over  the years?

SS | I believe the game has become much more physically demanding than before. The courts are much slower, the balls are heavier, and girls are stronger. I don’t know if we will see players winning Grand Slams early on in their teens like Chris Evert and Martina Hingis did. 

Go Behind the Scenes with Sloane Stevens.

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