Why We Should Root For Sloane Stephens

The tennis phenom, who beat Serena Williams on Tuesday night, has ties to Boston.

Sloane StephensSloane Stephens photo by Keith Allison on Flickr

The Patriots are done, the Celtics are struggling, the Bruins aren’t even a week into their truncated season, and the Red Sox won’t report to spring training for a month. If you're looking for someone with Boston-area connections to root for, look no further than tennis phenom Sloane Stephens. On Tuesday night, the 19-year-old upset Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals.

Stephens grew up in California and Florida, but her parents have strong ties to the Boston area. Her mother, psychologist Sybil Smith, was a star swimmer at Boston University. In 1988, she became her sport’s first African-American first-team Division I All-America, and she's still the only member of BU's women's swimming program to earn the honor. Stephens’ father, the late John Stephens, played running back for the Patriots. In 1988, he won the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award and made the Pro Bowl. (According to several profiles of Stephens, her father had just recently become a part of her life before he died in a car crash in 2009.)

It’d be easy to compare Stephens, a young, talented African-American woman, to the Williams sisters. But that’s bunk. “Stephens’ background is not like the legendary beginnings of the Williams sisters—the inner-city courts, the crazy/genius father, the relentless and obsessive molding of champions,” Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote in August. “Stephens started playing tennis when she was 9, at the country club across the street from her childhood home in Fresno, California. She didn't take it too seriously at first, she says, but she kept playing when her family moved to Florida, and she has thrived within the USTA system.”

On Wednesday, Deadspin’s Emma Carmichael rightfully called bullshit on the Stephens-is-Serena’s-little-sister trope, sarcastically pointing out that “for some reason that sportswriters just can’t work out quite yet—Sloane has been deemed something of a ‘protégé’ to the elder Williams. Why?”

On Tuesday night at least, the relationship (or lack thereof) between the 29th-seeded Stephens and the third-seeded Williams didn’t really matter. The former defeated the latter, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, and advanced to the Australian Open semifinals, where she’ll face defending champ Victoria Azarenka.

“Sloane Stephens (19 yrs, 10 mo 3 days) is the youngest American to reach a major SF since Serena at 2000 Wimbledon (18Y, 9M, 8D),” the USTA’s Tim Curry tweeted late Tuesday night.

In this case at least, the Stephens-Williams comparison is quite appropriate.