Every so often an athlete comes out of nowhere to accomplish something great and becomes an overnight sensation. The Olympics are especially good at producing these kinds of athletes – most Olympic sports aren’t in the public eye very often, making the Games tailor-made to thrust new names upon us – and that’s how we wound up with round-the-clock coverage of the likes of Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, and (especially) Gabby Douglas last summer.
But it’s not just the Olympics that can produce these kinds of insta-stars: just look at our latest, who comes to us from the tennis world. Her name is Sloane Stephens, and she burst onto the scene last night (well, night in the U.S.) with an upset win over Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. We talked about this some already, but it bears repeating: Stephens was sensational, storming back from a set down with superb shotmaking and looking very much like a threat to win majors for years to come.
And while one win does not a career make, one well-timed win does an America’s Newest Sports Sweetheart make. Stephens assumed that title last night, and since you’re probably hearing everyone talk about her today, we feel obligated to help catch you up to speed on sports’ newest phenom. So we present to you: Sloane Stephens – America’s Newest Sports Sweetheart, Explained.
Why is Sloane Stephens America’s newest sports sweetheart?
It starts with the fact that she’s, well, American, which separates her from every tennis superstar of recent vintage. The last Americans to come on the scene and make an impact at the highest levels of tennis are Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters – and Roddick was no more than a solid player in his later years, while Venus hasn’t on a Grand Slam singles title since 2008. Serena’s still going strong, of course, but she’s 31 – her career won’t last forever. Which brings us to another key factor in Stephens’ sweetheart-ness – she’s only 19. She’s got practically her entire career ahead of her, and should only get better from here. Make Stephens your new favorite player now, and it could pay off for years.
Would she be America’s newest sports sweetheart had she beaten anyone other than Serena?
Probably not. Not that she wouldn’t have deserved to be, but the symmetry of the old American champion falling to the (potential) new one was an irresistible storyline that a win over, say, Svetlana Kuznetsova couldn’t have possibly matched. There’d still be a buzz around Stephens, but it would be nothing like it is today.
How irresistible was the Serena-to-Sloane torch-passing storyline, you ask? So much so that writers tried desperately to make more of the players’ relationship than really exists. How do we know the two aren’t exactly mentor-protege? While the two are friendly and Serena was among the players Stephens admired growing up, Serena said this:
“I feel no responsibility. I doubt she has any expectations of me to be responsible for anything.
“Maybe some of the younger players look up to me. It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition. I’m here to compete and do the best I can, as well as she. I would need a better definition of the word ‘mentor.’”
Gee, wonder why anyone would compare the two.
Does Stephens’ game merit being America’s newest sports sweetheart?
Yes. Reaching a Grand Slam semifinal at 19 is nothing to sneeze at, and it’s not a fluke – Stephens has shown promise in the past – reaching the fourth round at last year’s French Open, for instance – so this seems to be a natural progression. She was the youngest player in the world ranked in the top 50 at the end of 2012, and her current No. 25 world ranking is about to take a significant jump up.
Is she going to finish the job and win the Aussie Open?
Probably not. The three other players left in the draw have won Grand Slams, and Stephens’ semifinal opponent, top seed Victoria Azarenka, is the defending Aussie Open champion. If she pulls what would once agin be a massive upset and knocks off Azarenka, awaiting in the final would be either Li Na (2011 French Open champ and Aussie Open finalist that same year) or Maria Sharapova, who’s won all four Slams and hasn’t come close to even dropping a set through the quarterfinals. Stephens has been terrific, but to emerge from this field would be monumental, and we don’t think she’s ready for quite that big a leap yet. In a couple years, on the other hand…
Fair enough. Does she have anything interesting about her personal backstory to add to her America’s newest sports sweetheart appeal?
Why, yes, actually – her father, John, is a former NFL running back (America’s sweetheart has direct family connections to America’s favorite game!) and even won the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 1988 when ran for 1,168 yards for the Patriots. Sadly, though, he died in a car accident in 2009.
Any other facts about Stephens that make her seem like just your average teen, something that’ll really help her popular appeal?
One of the first things she did after beating Serena was check her phone, and she also talked about how many new Twitter followers/tweets from famous people she was getting. It’s like she was following a down-to-earth-teen-girl script.
One last thing. America likes its sweethearts to be all happy and smile-y and whatnot (again, see Gabby Douglas). Is Sloane up to the task on that front?
You tell us.
Photos via Getty