SPORTS
08/30/2012 10:12 am ET | Updated Aug 30, 2012

Sloane Stephens, U.S. Open Contender, Could Be New Face of U.S. Women's Tennis

At 19 years old, American Sloane Stephens has a long tennis career ahead. Yet just as the great ones that came before her -- Serena and Venus Williams being the latest to do so -- Stephens has kick-started her career very early.

A Fresno, Calif., native, she is the daughter of a former NFL running back and All-American swimmer. Stephens fast became one of the best junior players in the world. At 16, she turned pro, foregoing a litany of scholarship opportunities from elite collegiate programs across the country. "I probably would have went to UCLA or USC," she told The Huffington Post, "but I decided whatever happens, happens."

What happened for Stephens was one of the quickest ascensions (rose 60 positions in one year) through the WTA Tour in recent memory. Having advanced to at least the third round at three of her last four Grand Slam events, she is now ranked an all-time high of 44th and is the youngest woman in the top 50. She entered the 2012 U.S. Open brimming with confidence, despite being one of the youngest players in the field, and it showed. In her first round straight-sets upset of 22nd-seeded Francesca Schiavone -- the 2010 French Open champion -- she displayed the fierce competitiveness and massive forehand that suggests she is capable of becoming the new face of tennis in America.

"I have a lot of focus right now," she said. "Actually listening helps a lot and I think I'm very coachable. Loving to compete has helped me greatly."

Even so, Stephens still has plenty of work to do in Flushing and as a pro. She has yet to defeat a top-ten player and has yet to win a WTA event. However, her natural charisma and ability to rise in big moments -- ala the Williams sisters, who she cites as close friends -- has endeared her to the crowd.

"I love the energy and the people," Stephens said of the U.S. Open. "You feel the crowd a lot."

What she is also feeling are the pleasures of success, outside the court. The teenager has inked deals with Under Armour and most recently as a face of the American Express Fan Experience, which she especially enjoys "because I love kids."

And, that's just the thing with Stephens; she really is still a kid herself, readily admitting that while her friends are entering their second year of college, she is traveling the world doing what she does best on the court, and of course, "going shopping."

Whether or not Stephens realizes the magnitude of her career though, we can appreciate her prodigious ability -- including a robust 120 mph serve -- and surprising success at such a young age. Serena was almost 18 when she won her first Grand Slam, the U.S. Open, back in 1999. Stephens says that she feels "extra pressure" playing in Flushing, but embraces it. She will play her second round match Thursday at 4:00 EDT, where a hefty crowd is once again expected.

"I'm just so ready to play," she added. "I'm so pumped up. I'm like wow; I'm actually here."

Ladies and gentlemen: Sloane Stephens has arrived.

Email me at jordan.schultz@huffingtonpost.com or ask me questions about anything sports-related at @Schultz_Report.

Plus, check out my HuffPost sports blog, The Schultz Report, for a fresh and daily outlook on all things sports and listen to my radio spot on 1280 The Zone Friday afternoons at 1 ET. Also, tune in at 8:30am ET Friday mornings on Memphis 56 Sports Radio, right here.

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