Is Stephens ready for her closeup?

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Updated: August 31, 2012

Sloane Stephens owns the distinguished honor of being the youngest player in the WTA’s top 50, but after today’s torturous three-set tussle with German qualifier Tatjana Malek, the young American must feel like she’s 19 going on 30.

Stephens reached the third round for the fourth time in her last five majors with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory on Thursday, but the story within the story was that Stephens endured a rite of passage for a young champion in the making: she learned how to win ugly.

Stephens, known more for her easy power and eyebrow-raising athleticism than her survival instincts, struggled with pretty much every facet of her game over the course of the two-hour and thirty-minute war of attrition with Malek.

“I started off a little slow,” Stephens told reporters on Thursday evening. “I couldn’t really find my rhythm.”

Stephens hacked at overheads with the clumsiness of a weekend warrior in a public park; her normally stoic on-court demeanor dissolved into a  panic-fueled angst that was directed regularly at her player’s box; she dunked attempts at dropshots into the bottom of the net and launched furious forehands well long of the baseline.

But always, there was a common denominator, a thread of stability that never left Stephens. Even after failing to serve out the first set and then failing to serve her way into a tiebreaker, Stephens didn’t waver in her commitment to winning.

In the second set, things would get worse before they got better. The American, who hit an astounding 62 unforced errors on the day, found herself a point away from going down 4-2 five times in a grueling 14-minute, 10-deuce game. She seemed to be sinking into an abyss of self-doubt, unable to string together the type of shots she’s capable of hitting, and lacking her trademark assertiveness.

But something clicked somewhere in Stephens during that game. As perturbed as she had become by her inability to poke a hole in the quirky German’s game, she was still hanging in there, fighting. She was going to do this the hard way.

Stephens wasn’t going home, she was going to win ugly–and she did just that.

As cringe-worthy as Stephen’s effort was, there were elements of true tennis beauty in it. The champions of the past always talk about finding ways to win when you are not playing your best. They say anyone can win when you’re playing amazing, but if you can win when your game is off, then you are on to something.

Stephens, who persevered through that difficult game then cruised to a soul-quenching victory, is clearly on to something.

“I just believe in myself a lot more and I just know that whatever I put my mind to and focus on and I really want to do, I do it.” Stephens told reporters after her first-round upset over Francesca Schiavone earlier this week. “I decided that tennis is what I love and that’s what I just really want to do. So I give a hundred percent all the time.”

Stephens has never lost to a player ranked lower than her at a Slam in five matches, but her challenge this weekend will be to beat a player who has been No. 1 in the world and won a Grand Slam title before.

She was clearly intimidated by that challenge in 2011. She came up short in every way against Ana Ivanovic under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium in the US Open’s third round last year.

“I was so caught up in being tight and nervous and not really handling the situation well,” Stephens said after her loss to the Serb. “Honestly, I was thinking like a 10 year old, things that my brother would think, just weird stuff. I’m disappointed in myself obviously that I couldn’t take the opportunities that were given to me. Hopefully next time I’ll be better prepared and ready for it.”

This weekend, Stephens will get the chance to prove that she is a vastly improved player from the one she was on that disappointing evening last September. She’s risen in the rankings over 50 spots this year. She’s become the youngest American to reach the fourth round of the French Open since Serena Williams in 2001.

Now all she has to do is prove that she can win on the big stage with all of America watching.

Now that she can win ugly, she probably won’t need to be so nervous.

Chris Oddo is a San Francisco-based freelance tennis writer who fell in love with tennis the first time he saw Martina Navratilova serve and volley. His work has been published inTennis.com, USA today, SI.com and various other tennis publications.”

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