To hear 20-year-old Sloane Stephens speak of public reaction to her quantum leap in tennis success and visibility, mostly powered by her high-profile upset of Serena Williams in January's Australian Open, she is not exactly feeling the love.
Stephens said that at this year's U.S. Open, "I don't plan on going outside because I know I will probably not make it out alive.''
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She described her interaction with fans this summer as "survival. It's more like you don't want to get hit with a ball because people are throwing balls at you. They're very hands on, and they want to just grab you like you're a sister or grandchild. It's intense.''
Not two years since she broke into the rankings' top 100, she hit a career high at No. 15 last month and there is general consensus in the tennis community that she is a solid candidate to be the next great American champion.
But she said that at the Washington tournament earlier this month, "some girl was hitting me with a racket because I wasn't signing her ball. Then one mom pulled me by my ponytail. The other day I got marker all over my arm from some kid.''
During the Open tune-up tournament in Mason, Ohio, two weeks ago, Stephens acknowledged the enthusiastic crowd support she received during matches, saying the cheering helped, "but I think I'm the one playing, so it's kind of on me.''
Of the fans' increasing off-court clamor, Stephens said, "I mean, I never wanted to be popular, like, 'Oh, I want people to want my autograph.' It's never been like that.
"I don't mind signing autographs. It's fine. But when they just get out of hand, it's too much. They're acting like my brother. It's just, 'Calm down.' It's just too much.''
During the Ohio tournament, second-ranked Victoria Azarenka made a point taking pleasure in chatting with fans, and the men's top-ranked player, Novak Djokovic, once approached three young girls after a match to give them a hug. "I haven't seen them before,'' he said. "But during the match, I heard them really cheering me on. I try to pay attention to those things and those people who come out there and buy tickets and support you. So that's the least I could do.''
No. 4 David Ferrer, as he walked from a practice court to the locker room in Mason, paused three times to fulfill fans' request to pose with them for photos.
"What're you going to do?'' Stephens said. "You just kind of have to go with it and pretend you're, like, 'Oh, I totally love it.'
"But it's way more intense than last year. Last year it was, 'Oh my god, I love you; me and my mom watched you on TV.' Now, it's parents pushing their kids, like 'Go!' The other day this girl was on crutches, and the mom was, like, 'Run!' Are you serious?
"It had been more mellow and sweeter. Like, oh, I'm your favorite player? That's so cute. Now, it's like people are elbowing each other and it's way more intense. Like aunts and uncles and grandparents and wheelchairs. It's crazy.''
Then again, she said, she would take her chances with the popularity fallout if she could win a U.S. Open. "That would be awesome,'' she said.