Future Focus: Laura Robson and Sloane Stephens

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The first week of any Major typically serves up several unique storylines that, although they don’t have a bearing on the actual outcome of who will win the event, often prove to be a reliable bellwether of future trends in the sport. At this year’s Australian Open, this is certainly the case with the impressive performance of a number of young women, some of them still teenagers, who will likely be established WTA stars in a few years.

But two in particular stand out from this group and will earn even more attention as they prepare to face off against each other in the third round today — American Sloane Stephens and Great Britain’s Laura Robson. Both Robson and Stephens made healthy strides up the rankings last year and both are poised to perhaps enter the top 20 even sooner than expected. Though they have different playing styles, Robson and Stephens both share that same blessing and burden of having been touted as the “next big thing”.

Stephens, age 19, is very personable with a mega-wattage smile and a penchant for posting thoughtful messages of inspiration on her Twitter account. But that glorious smile has helped her deal with personal tragedy in her young life. In 2009, her father, an ex-American football player, was killed in a car accident just before the start of the U.S. Open. Stephens decided to compete in New York after all and later admitted it was a difficult decision but that she felt it was the right thing to do.

Though possessing powerful groundstrokes, Stephens has quite a bit variety in her game and says that clay, usually the nemesis of most American players, is her favorite surface. Because she is African-American and due to her age, Stephens has inevitably earned comparisons to the Williams Sisters, most notable Serena Williams. Stephens in fact had never met Williams until they practiced together as part of the U.S. Fed Cup team when they played Belarus last winter. Stephens cites Serena as a friend now, though her recent close battle against the 15-time Major champion in the quarterfinals of Brisbane proved that she wasn’t in awe of Williams on the court as some players are.

The soon to turn 19-year-old Robson, who was actually born in Melbourne, became a Brit after her parents moved to the country when she was 18 months old. Robson took up tennis as a young child at age 10 was soon signed to an agent and multiple sponsorship deals. When she won the junior girls title at Wimbledon in 2008, she was declared the “new queen of British tennis”, but it took her several years on the main tour to find her footing. Robson’s real breakthrough came at last year’s U.S. Open where she knocked out Kim Clijsters and Li Na en route to the fourth round.

In a nation obsessed with every move Andy Murray makes, Robson feels a similar pressure to the Scot as she is expected to resurrect women’s tennis in the U.K from near irrelevancy since the glory days of Virginia Wade in the late 1970’s. A lefty who can hit powerful groundies on both wings, Robson outlasted Petra Kvitova in a marathon third set in her last match at Melbourne and its that ability than many feel could help her reach the very top of the game.

While Stephens can now find some relief that she is among a growing wave of young American talent now in the top 100, Robson, along with fellow Brit Heather Watson, appear to be the only real hopes their nation has of becoming a force in women’s tennis. Because of that, Robson may want to ask Murray for some advice on how to deal with her the expectations of her nation, and its outspoken press, especially when she deals with an inevitable high-profile loss.

Stephens, on the other hand, will have to find a way to smoothly navigate all the comparisons she will hear between her and the Williams Sisters even after they have left the game while making sure that everyone understands that her accomplishments on the court are hers alone.

Robson and Stephens played each other for the first time in Hobart last week with the American winning in two close sets. Though the match was hailed by many as a preview of future Grand Slam finals, it’s curious then that their third round match today in Melbourne has been scheduled on smaller Court 2 rather than on one of the main show courts. Perhaps the schedule is the tournament’s organizers way of saying that despite all of the massive hype both young women have garnered recently, they still have a long way to go in proving that they will be bankable stars of the future.

Whoever wins today though, both women will continue to be the focus of speculation and expectation as they continue their young careers.

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