MELBOURNE, Jan 21 (Reuters) - Sloane Stephens had a “pretty cool” realisation after she beat Bojana Jovanovski on Monday, she’s going to become a member of the Australian Open’s “last eight club”.
The club is an actual players’ lounge, but Stephens was referring to a prominent corridor at Melbourne Park where the portraits of the previous year’s quarter-finalists are hung.
“Now my picture’s going to be on that thing when you first walk in,” Stephens said of the corridor that leads to the player transport hub. “Like, you know, that thing, I don’t know what they call that, but that’s pretty cool.”
The 19-year-old American’s first grand slam quarter-final took some achievement against the 21-year-old Serb. After Stephens raced through the first set in 25 minutes, Jovanovski obviously felt she had nothing to lose.
She banged away from both wings and hit unorthodox shots that bamboozled the 29th-seed at Melbourne Park and it took a realisation the match was getting away from Stephens that forced the American to settle down.
”She brought it full force second, third set,“ Stephens said. ”I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this is for the quarters of a grand slam and I‘m completely just like not here right now’. I was like, ‘I need to refocus’.
“I think mentally it was pretty tough... I was playing my own self, I guess you could say. But I managed to get through, so that was good.”
Stephens may still be a teenager, using “like” as form of punctuation in her media conferences and peppering her game with shots that exhibit the capriciousness of youth, but the mental toughness belies her age.
That toughness was evident three years ago when her birth father, former NFL running back John Stephens, was killed in a car crash shortly before the U.S. Open.
She attended his funeral then returned to New York for qualifying, though lost in the first round.
Since then she has had a meteoric rise up the rankings, cracking the top-200 at the end of 2010 and the top-100 in Sept. 2011.
Last year, however, was her break out year as she made two WTA tour semi-finals at Strasbourg and Washington and broke into the top-50.
By year’s end she was 38th, the highest-ranked teenager in the world and had made a friendly bet with training partner Sam Querrey as to who would finish higher in 2013.
Querrey was seeded 20th for the Australian Open, but crashed out in the third round. Stephens will now move into the top-20 after her quarter-final appearance.
“Yeah, we’ll bet on who is going to be in the top 20 first, all this other stuff,” Stephens added with a grin.
“I‘m like, ‘I‘m not even going to be seeded in Australia. I could get number one seed. There’s no hope for me’.”
“(But) he’s never been in the quarters of a grand slam, so... I got him.”
Stephens, who is the first American woman other than Serena or Venus Williams to make a grand slam quarter-final since Melanie Oudin made the last eight at the 2009 U.S. Open, will meet Serena on Wednesday.
The pair met in the quarter-finals in Brisbane before the Australian Open, where Williams won, and Stephens was adamant she would not be overawed by facing the tournament favourite.
Indeed, she had hoped before Williams played Maria Kirilenko in the fourth round that she would meet the 15-times grand slam champion.
“Not even!” Stephens exclaimed on ESPN when asked if she would prefer to face Kirilenko, who she had beaten on clay in Strasbourg last year.
”You want a good match. You want a battle. You want a show.
“But I‘m not calling her out. She knows I want to play her.” (Editing by John O‘Brien)