Sloane Stephens is a tennis player. She played in an Australian Open semifinal Thursday. But she's built more like an Olympic sprinter or lightweight boxer.
The 19-year-old Floridian, whose father was an NFL football player and mother was a collegiate swimmer, has such a strong game that she beat Serena Williams on Wednesday, before losing in the semi to Victoria Azarenka, 6-1, 6-4.
But will the apparent strength of her muscles be the difference between her and all the breakthrough tennis sensations that have come before?
History says that being cut is no guarantee of consistent top-10 tennis. But it also says that most, if not all of the sport’s enduring greats over the past 30 years have been physically superior to their competition.
There is plenty of room in women’s tennis, as in most other sports, for athletes who don’t look like they know a weight room from a waiting room. From Martina Hingis to Caroline Wozniacki and going back to the days of ball machines like Tracy Austin, super athletes have used their coordination, determination, smarts and stamina to reach tennis' mountaintops with barely a modicum of muscle definition.
But who has stayed at the top the longest since Martina Navratilova serve-and-volleyed her way past Chris Evert to conquer the game?
Navratilova, a chubby youngster when she first made the international scene, won 18 major singles titles from 1978-90 as she honed her physique into that of a Greek statue. Steffi Graf, though not the bodybuilder Navratilova was, could have doubled as a World Cup skiier or 400-meter runner. She won 22 majors from 1987-99. And since 1999, Serena Williams, a veritable linebacker, has won 15 Majors.
From Navratilova’s first Major victory through 2012, there were 137 Majors. Based on research into Wikipedia's women's Grand Slam page, these three won 55 of those titles, or 42 percent. Twenty-eight (28!) players won the remaining 58 percent.
Here and there through this time, other players have had extended runs at or near the top of women’s tennis. There have been those obviously super-fit athletes like Venus Williams, Justine Henin and, currently, Azarenka. And there have been those who you would not have picked out of a lineup as elite athletes—though they most certainly were—such as Hingis, Monica Seles and Lindsay Davenport.
But none of them maintained her edge like Navratilova, Graf and Serena Williams did. Seles came closest, winning nine Majors. And had she not been stabbed at courtside, putting her out of competitive action for over two years, she might have won more (at the expense of Graf). Henin and Venus Williams each own seven Major titles.
Perhaps it will be Stephens’ physique that moves her to the front of the line as Serena Williams’ heir, taking the mantle as Williams did from Graf and Graf from Navratilova.
Sloane Stephens’ father, John Stephens, was a first-round draft pick at running back and played six seasons in the NFL (he died at age 43, in 2009). Her mother, Sybil Smith, was an All-American swimmer for Boston University. So, at 5’7” and 135 pounds, Sloane Stephens got the strong gene.
That parentage and whatever she’s done to bulk up have given her a build rarely seen in tennis. I could find no definitive source of information on Stephens' regimen, but after a torn stomach muscle stymied her at the 2012 French Open, she redoubled her workout efforts. And this Fitness Magazine feature spells out her daily dose of crunches.
When Stephens became the first American younger than Serena Williams to beat her, in an Australian Open quarterfinal on Wednesday, she showed she could almost match forehand power with Williams, could serve effectively and consistently, could cover every corner of the court and could stir up enough strength after a wavering second set to defeat Williams in the third. (No doubt, Williams' ailing back was of benefit to Stephens, too.)
Against Azarenka in the semi, Stephens wilted, showing that she still has a way to go in channeling her strength for effective tennis.
But Stephens has gone from a ranking of 97 in the world 13 months ago to what will be better than 20 in the first post-Aussie rankings. She has more than 50,000 Twitter followers @sloanetweets. She is the latest American future in tennis. And maybe she’s the real thing.
Of course, Stephens is just 19. There’s no saying she’ll even be in the Top 10 in five years. Muscles alone won’t do it. Imposing figures like Gabriela Sabatina (one Major victory), Samantha Stosur (one), Jelena Jankovic (zero) and Amelie Mauresmo (two) all had their time at or near the top of the game. But not for too long, despite their toned physiques.
So some might say Stephens is the new model for the ideal women’s tennis player. They'll say she will be emulated by younger players, transforming the sport to the point that the relatively unfit likes of Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova would find they’re out of place. But surely that’s what people said when Navratilova took over.
History indicates it is wiser to look at Stephens just as a phenomenon in and of herself, not as the beginning of a trend.
To that end we’ll say: Yes, Stephens’ physical makeup just might be what puts her over the top. But maybe it’s wise to focus on Stephens’ competitive fire and hope she can maintain that (and stay injury-free), rather than put too much stock in those guns.