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Sloane Stephens

 

In an era during which so many women have admitted to struggling to deal with inflated expectations and pressures that come with reaching the top of the game, Sloane Stephens is impressively bucking the trend.

The 20-year-old, who enjoyed her breakout performance at Melbourne Park 12 months ago in reaching the semifinals, has shown no signs of tension or stress at the same event a year later, despite the enormous swag of points she has to defend and the target now firmly fixed on her back.

Rather, Stephens shows a somewhat pathological inclination towards composure and calm, measured in her movements and demeanour on court and understated in her reactions and celebrations.

And she’s required such an approach, given some of the sticky situations she’s found herself in at Australian Open 2014.

The No.13 seed’s lead-up to the tournament was affected by a wrist injury, necessitating retirement from her final Hopman Cup match against Petra Kvitova and then her withdrawal from the Apia International Sydney the following week.

And when she opened her campaign at Melbourne Park against Yaroslava Shvedova, she soon found herself down 5-1 in the first set.

Stephens recovered, but in the very next round had to contend with the surging Croatian talent Ajla Tomljanovic, who led 5-3 in the third set of their high-quality encounter and served for the match, only for the American to snatch the final four games in a clutch display.

Following a win over Ukrainian Elina Svitolina in two tight sets, Stephens has now reached the fourth round at a fifth consecutive major tournament.

How does she manage such consistency and stability?

“I have no idea. You guys ask me that every time,” she replied during a press conference.

“I just play, and then I end up in the second week. Then I don't know.”

Prodded a little further, she revealed that she had made some mental gains in the past year, ensuring continued success despite the glaring spotlight that has come with her rapidly burgeoning profile.

“I'd say I don't get flustered as easily, and (that’s) something I have worked on. I don't get overwhelmed and I'm kind of just learning to focus on myself, because that's the only thing I can control, like the things that I do,” she said.

“That's pretty much it. Just when you focus on yourself you can control a lot more things, and everything else is just kind of just whatever.”

She may better at doing that now, but it was already apparent that the-then 19-year-old Stephens was a cool, calm and collected competitor when she cut a swathe through the draw in Melbourne last year.

She kept her focus against the ever-intimidating Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, a task made even trickier when the title favourite struggled through the match with a back injury requiring a medical time-out.

Upsetting Williams in three sets, she then faced Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals, remaining steady while the Belarusian tightened and then left the court for a 10-minute injury break as Stephens was storming back in the second set.

Although she ultimately lost, Stephens has earned a rematch with the defending champion in the fourth round this year.

But rather than buy into the hype surrounding the match – and the notion that she will be seeking retribution for Azarenka’s perceived gamesmanship 12 months ago – the young American is remaining typically measured and objective.

“That (result) has nothing to do with this year. I don't even remember half the stuff that happened. It's okay. Like I said, it's a new match,” she said.

“I'm not thinking about who thinks I'm the underdog or who is going to be talking about or tweeting about it or whatever.

“I need to focus on myself and do what I can do.”

Stephens will face Azarenka in a fourth round blockbuster second up on Rod Laver Arena on Monday.

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Post-Tournament
Saturday, 25 October 2014
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