NEW YORK — When Peyton Stearns was 5 years old, she was in a neighbor’s backyard and smacked a Wiffle Ball clear over the fence.
The neighbor’s mom suggested to Peyton and her mother, Denise, that the powerful tyke should play softball.
“Nah,” Denise and Peyton replied. “What else you got?”
Tennis was a sport Peyton’s father, Mike Stearns, had played in college, so courts became Peyton’s place.
Sixteen years later, that choice looks wiser and wiser. The former Texas star has been playing the best tennis of her life in 2023, and over the past week at the U.S. Open has enjoyed her best Grand Slam so far. She demolished Britain’s Katie Boulter on Saturday night, taking the 6-4, 6-3 victory to reach the round of 16 of a major for the first time.
Using her rocketlike groundstrokes and an ever-improving serve, the Cincinnati native showed her rapid ascent up the pro ranks is no fluke. In three matches here at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Stearns has won all six sets and lost only 17 games.
She will face Wimbledon champion and No. 9 seed Marketa Vondrousova on Monday.
“I don’t think I’ve wrapped my mind around the fact where I am right now because I’m honestly trying not to think about it too much,” Stearns said. “I just try not to think about it too much in the sense of where I am, what’s happening, who I’m playing or where I’m playing kind of thing.”
Second time was a charm, too
Stearns, 21, came into the Open ranked No. 59 and expected to play her third-round match on Grandstand Court, but long matches there and scheduling issues moved the contest to the more intimate confines of Court 17. She got off to a terrific start in the first set against Boulter, against whom she played a three-set battle in Austin in February at the ATX Open, a three-set 7-6, 6-7, 7-6 match.
Stearns raced to a 4-1 lead, weathered Boulter battling back to break serve and get back to 4-all, and she snatched the set by breaking Boulter in the 10th game. A scream of “Come on!” toward her box followed, and Stearns was off and running.
Stearns pounced again in the second set, breaking Boulter in the sixth game and then holding serve to go up 5-2, with the sparse crowd roaring. At 5-3, after saving two break points and squandering three match points, she crushed a forehand winner down the line on match point No. 4 to win it.
Stearns smacked 20 winners and broke Boulter three times, and with the win also moved her ranking inside the top 50.
Remember, this is a player who was in college last year. The transition to pro tennis rarely goes this smoothly.
“I told myself by the end of the year I wanted to be top 200 (ranking), and I almost made it; I think I was 210,” Stearns said. “Then at start of this year I told myself I wanted to be top 100. That happened in March or April. Then I said top 75, then top 50.”
She paused and smiled.
“Now I have to make a new goal.”
Finding the right coach has been key
Her recent run of success at the Open continues the terrific 2023 season Stearns has had, and she attributes her recent wins to joining forces with new coach Eric Hechtman. Only a duo since mid-August, Stearns said Hechtman “gives me that confidence.”
Stearns spent two seasons in Austin, and she said there was very little doubt she was going to college after a chat with her parents.
“My parents said unless I was top 50-ranked, or making main draws at Slams, I had to go to college,” Stearns said with a smile after her second-round win. “And I was like 400 or 500 in the world. So that was an easy decision.”
Denise Stearns said a big part of her daughter’s college experience was about maturing off the court.
“The kids need to be alone,” Denise Stearns said. “It’s a good experience to be alone, stay in dorms. I think it’s great for them, and it was very healthy and good for Peyton.”
Making the transition from college
As a Longhorn, Stearns went 33-2 as a sophomore in 2022, recovering from a fall foot injury to lead the Longhorns to the team national title, and she won the NCAA individual title as well.
“The development piece for Peyton, that’s no surprise,” said Texas women’s tennis coach Howard Joffe. “She was always someone who had her eye on pro tennis and being successful.
“But beyond the forehands and backhands, the personal growth, and maturity, were a big part of why she became in her second year someone who definitely was going to go pro. So it’s not surprising that Peyton is doing so well; maybe how quickly it’s happening is fast. To be No. 50-60 in the world a year and a half out of playing in college is exceptional.”
There also have been plenty of UT fans at each of Stearns’ matches this week, something she has certainly noticed.
“Oh, yeah, love seeing all the burnt-orange,” she said with a smile. “I appreciate it and hope it keeps up.”
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Former Texas tennis star Peyton Stearns in the U.S. Open round of 16