Long before becoming a tennis star and on Thursday advancing to the U.S. Open championship, beating seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in the semifinals, Sloane Stephens grew up in Fresno.
She went to St. Anthony’s Elementary in north-central Fresno and would have gone to mom Sybil Smith’s alma mater, Memorial High, had she stuck around.
Stephens’ mom was a four-time All-America swimmer for Memorial before becoming an All-America swimmer at Boston University.
And athletic genes run even deeper in the tennis star’s family.
Stephens’ late father John Stephens, played in the NFL and was the 1989 Rookie of the Year while with the New England Patriots.
And her uncle, Fresno native Tony Smith, was a professional golfer.
“She’s got a good gene pool, but she’s taken it to a whole other level,” Tony Smith told The Bee on Thursday after Stephens’ 6-1, 0-6, 7-5 victory over Williams in the first of two all-American semifinals. “It just makes me so proud to know what she’s accomplished and where she came from.
“Sloane came from the little ol’ part of the country called Fresno. And now she’s in the U.S. Open. That’s something everyone in Fresno can be proud of.”
Stephens on Saturday will face 15th-seeded Madison Keys, a 6-1, 6-2 winner over No. 20 CoCo Vandeweghe. It’s the first all-U.S. final since Serena Williams beat Venus in 2002.
It will be the first Grand Slam final for both players.
Stephens was introduced to tennis at a young age with the help of her late stepfather, Sheldon Farrel, and trained at Sierra Sport and Racquet Club through pro Francisco Gonzalez.
After showing advanced skill and talent, Gonzalez urged Stephens’ mom to consider sending her to a tennis academy.
By the time she turned 10, Stephens and her mother had moved out of their home in southwest Fresno, where they lived with Sloane’s grandparents, and relocated to Florida.
Still, Stephens has not forgotten her Fresno roots.
She has family in Fresno, including her grandparents, and visits the city on occasion.
Her grandfather, by the way, was born in Trinidad and was one of 13 children.
He eventually earned a medical degree and set his family on course to a better life. He turns 92 on Friday.
Stephens helps fund tennis programs at Edison-Bethune Charter Academy, introducing children to the sport.
Through the Fresno County Office of Education, Stephens has helped expand tennis programs at other local elementary and middle schools, particularly for students from economically disadvantaged communities.
“Every child deserves an opportunity to play,” Stephens said in an interview two years ago. “I’m from Fresno, so it feels really good to participate in the development of elementary school-aged kids, not just with tennis, but with choosing a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s an honor to help in any way I can.”