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For tennis phenom Sloane Stephens, fame comes with strings attached

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Her day begins with a 4 a.m. wake-up call. Sloane Stephens won’t drink coffee because it might stain her million-dollar smile. By sunrise, she has already begun 36 consecutive satellite TV interviews, hawking US Open tickets and lying through her pearly white teeth about her so-called idol Serena Williams.

Then there are hours of tennis and training. By 8 p.m., she is slathered in Johnson’s Baby Oil, dabbed in Diamond Dust glitter, and dressed as a Greek goddess for yet another photo shoot.

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No American teenager had ever beaten Serena Williams in a Grand Slam event before Stephens — then 19 — upset the 15-time major champion in the Australian Open quarterfinals in January, earning a cool $500,000.

Stephens, now 20 and ranked 17th in the world — the highest-ranked American after Serena — has been proclaimed tennis’s new “It Girl” by ESPNW. She made the cover of Inside Tennis magazine and graced the fashion pages in Vogue.

Her rise to fame has been as swift as her serve is powerful. It has been only 10 years since she picked up a racket in Fresno, Calif., and started playing at a country club across the street from where she lived. She has pure athleticism, charisma, quickness, and great bloodlines.

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Her father was the late John Stephens, the former Patriots running back who was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year in 1988 when he rushed for 1,168 yards. Stephens never matched his rookie performance, but he did last six years in the NFL, five with the Patriots.

John Stephens died at age 43 in a truck accident outside of Shreveport, La., in September 2009. Sloane’s parents had gotten divorced when she was young, and she barely knew her famous father growing up.

‘I have no friends on the tour.’

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Her mother, Sybil Smith, became the first African-American woman to earn All-America honors in swimming (Division 1) while at Boston University in 1988.

But it is not easy being in her Jimmy Choo shoes. Everybody wants a piece of her. Everyone asks her about beating Serena. Many people think she and Serena are good friends because Stephens has said that in the past. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I have no friends on the tour,” she says bluntly before going on an off-the-record tirade a few days before the BNP Paribas Open in March. But still she smiles and says all the right things on TV.

Unvarnished truth

The following day, still exhausted, Stephens tells a reporter that their arranged interview site has changed. She needs a manicure and pedicure. Five heads turn and 50 toes wiggle with excitement when she strolls unannounced into the local nail salon. Her telegenic smile could light up the cool desert at night.

But as the pink nail polish is brushed on, the political correctness is brushed off.

It turns out that there’s another side to a famous story of her growing up with a poster of Serena on her bedroom wall. The poster was actually of the US Fed Cup team, and it was handed out at the matches when the Americans beat Belgium in Delray Beach, Fla., in April 2005.

The 12-year-old Sloane was there and wanted the Williams sisters’ autographs. She waited and waited.

“Neither one of them would sign my poster,” she says. “They just walked past.

“At the time, it was definitely like, ‘Oh my God, heartbreaking, I’m going to cry.’ But knowing what I know now, it’s a totally different situation. I totally understand. You have places to be and you can’t stop.”

She says she has nothing but respect for the Williamses.

“I’d definitely say that Venus and Serena have been an inspiration to women and all girls who play tennis,” she says.

Critics say her win in Australia was tarnished because Williams had back and ankle injuries.

“There’s always going to be something,” says Stephens, who once played with a bleeding abdominal tear (against her mother’s wishes). “If I would have been injured and lost, love and love, everyone would have been, ‘Oh, Serena killed her.’ Not ‘Oh, she was injured.’ ”

But she didn’t appreciate Serena tweeting a picture of her swollen ankle, either.

“Obviously, that was a little much,” says Stephens. “But I got the W. She got the L.”

Finding her father

For her part, Williams says Stephens has the right stuff.

“I think she can be the best in the world someday,” she said in Australia.

Stephens certainly has the DNA.

But there is a sadness that seeps into her voice when she remembers her father.

“I never talked to him till I was 13,” she says. “He called because he had a degenerative bone disease from playing football. His body was just terrible. Terrible. He was dying and he kind of wanted to make that last connection before he got too sick or too weak.”

Her mother, a psychologist, set up the call. Sloane remembers it was awkward.

“It was like, ‘Hi, this is weird,’ ” she says. “At the time, my stepdad was still alive and he had cancer, so we were going through all of that. It was just a weird time.”

But they eventually cobbled together a relationship. John Stephens attended one of Sloane’s tennis matches in Texas and then invited her to his home in Louisiana. There was no football memorabilia in his house, she says. Nor were there any apologies from him.

But the two bonded.

“Yeah, it was real cool,” says Stephens. “I loved him. We acted alike. We were kind of the same person. So it was funny. It was like hanging out with me again.”

They talked on the phone a lot, but she knew he was failing.

“He’d gotten sick a couple of times,” she says. “His kidneys were shutting down.”

She says she never got angry at him for leaving her.

“No, no,” she says. “I mean, I had a dad, like a stepdad and that’s the only dad I knew. And my grandpa.”

She tries to look at the brighter side.

“I think him leaving was the best thing,” she says, “because my mom raised me to be a really good person and the way she raised me was better than anyone else could do it. It was just meant to be like that.”

She only knew her father’s good side. In Boston, he won the NFL’s first Gale Sayers Humanitarian Citation in 1988 for his work with the Roxbury Comprehensive Community Health Center.

Doug Flutie, who was the Patriots’ starting quarterback that year, remembers Stephens as hard-working and fearless.

“So we’re in Chicago, John and I were signing autographs in the hotel lobby,” says Flutie. “All of a sudden, there was a ruckus, someone yells, ‘This guy stole a purse’, and the guy runs out the door.

“John turns and runs after him. So I jog at a distance to see what’s going on. John’s a big guy. He can handle himself. I’m a little bit smaller.

“Sure enough, John chases the guy down into the subway in Chicago — and the guy loses him down there. But all I’m thinking is, ‘You are going to get yourself shot.’ But that’s the kind of guy John was. He loved a challenge.”

But Stephens also ran into trouble himself. He never told his daughter about being arrested twice for sexual assault and once for carrying a concealed firearm.

In 1994, he pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was placed on probation in Missouri. The second sexual assault charge in Louisiana was pending at the time of his death.

“I never knew about any of that until he died,” says his daughter, “and then it was like, ‘Whoa, that’s crazy.’ ”

Sloane Stephens doesn’t want to delve into the negative.

“I don’t want to wonder, I don’t want to know,” she says. “When I saw him, I didn’t see that. He was loving and he was caring. For what we had, he was a good dad.”

She was at the US Open junior tournament on Sept. 1, 2009, when she found out her father had died. She cried for over an hour.

“You always want to have that one last meeting or one last hug,” she says. “I just never got to say my goodbye.”

She went out and smashed tennis balls in practice.

“Yeah, I guess [it was] therapeutic,” she says. “I had to practice anyway.”

She attended the funeral, then came back and won her next match.

“That whole time was just crazy.”

Tweet and sour

Since Australia, her life has been even crazier.

In the age of instant gratification, Stephens’s Twitter followers leapt from 17,000 to 61,000.

Shaquille O’Neal tweeted, “When u defeat a legend you become a legend. Keep it going.”

She heard from singer John Legend, who gushed that he has the same birth name as Sloane’s father, and his football card.

“I want him to sing at my wedding someday, ” she says.

But she also stopped tweeting for weeks.

“There are too many people saying really rude things, like people are so obnoxious,” she says. “A lot of people say crazy, crazy things so I just stopped.”

But since beating Serena, her record is 3-7, and the slump is taking its toll.

There are whispers that she is another Melanie Oudin, who in 2009 was hyped as the future of American tennis but hasn’t panned out. Or Anna Kournikova, who parlayed her looks into far more success off the court than on it.

“I hope not,” says Stephens.

The spotlight is a double-edged sword.

“I enjoy it now," she says. “But I think it’s very stressful. It definitely takes a toll on you.”

In an ESPN The Magazine story this week, Stephens had more critical remarks about Serena, but she later tweeted an apology:

“Guilty of being naive. Much respect 4 @serenawilliams , a champ & the GOAT. We spoke, we’re good. ONWARD! #lifelessons.”

Told back in March that she seemed happier singing along to Rihanna during her photo shoots than she does on the tennis court, she smiled.

She says she would have rather have been a singer than a tennis player, but her mother gave her piano lessons and not voice lessons when she was a girl.

“That was my dream,” she says. “But I’m good at tennis. It’s 95 percent mental.”

To keep her grounded, she has an old saying written on her necklace, socks, and shoes. It’s something her grandfather said: “In calmness and confidence.”

“It means stay relaxed, do your thing,” she says. “Always believe in yourself.”

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.
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