‘You’ve just got to take it match by match’: Is Peyton Stearns on the brink of a career breakthrough?

PARIS — When Peyton Stearns realized she had forgotten to sign up for the qualifying draw at the Italian Open earlier this month, she was annoyed with herself, and frustrated to miss the opportunity to play in one of the bigger tournaments during the lead-in to the French Open. She had just reached the quarterfinals at the 125-level event in Saint-Malo, France, and now, instead of building on her momentum on the surface, she had to figure out what to do with the unexpected week off.

She had no idea at that time that her gaffe might end up being the turning point in her season.

Instead of going to Rome, the 22-year-old American and her new coach Tom Hill went to Nice, France, for an impromptu training week. They had just started working together in Madrid in April, and hadn’t had any time outside of tournaments to make adjustments. Arriving in the Mediterranean city the day after her loss in Saint-Malo, Hill asked Stearns to name a goal she wanted to achieve this season. Stearns said she wanted to win her first WTA title.

They got to work.

Every day was the same — a lengthy run, a long on-court session, lunch, a workout in the gym, back on court, another run, stretching, dinner at the hotel. Repeat. By the end of the 10-day period, Hill had Stearns run on the treadmill for what she describes as an “insane workout session.” Stearns didn’t think she would make it through, but she did.

Two weeks later, when she was playing in three-hour matches on back-to-back days at the Moroccan Open, Stearns felt more prepared than ever.

“Honestly I got through those matches because I knew deep down I could go for longer,” Stearns told ESPN on Friday. “It had been such vigorous training, I knew what I was capable of, and that I can make it physical. I knew I could win any battle because of what I had been through [in Nice].”

After five matches in six days, Stearns won the title in Morocco with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Mayar Sherif in the final.

Now in Paris, just a week later, and surging with confidence, Stearns is one match away from reaching the second week at a major for the second time in her career and first time at this tournament. On Saturday, she’ll face Mirra Andreeva in the third round, and look to achieve her latest milestone in what she hopes will be a season filled with them.

“Tom came in and kind of took my life and flipped it real quick and in a good way,” Stearns said. “The results so far speak for themselves but it’s not just the title, it’s everything. I thought I was training hard before but it was nowhere near enough. I needed to train harder. I did, I am. It’s paying off.”

Stearns is no stranger to titles or big results.

Ranked as high as No. 49 as a junior and a highly recruited college prospect, Stearns was inspired by the journey of Danielle Collins, a two-time NCAA champion who is currently ranked No. 10 in the world.

Stearns believed she too could achieve success in both the NCAA and the pros, and saw the option as her best pathway.

Playing for the University of Texas — the same school her mom Denise had attended and been a member of the gymnastics team before it lost its varsity status — Stearns made history in her two years in Austin.

She led the Longhorns to the NCAA team title during her freshman season in 2021, earning Most Outstanding Player honors, as well as the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year. Then she became the first Texas player to win the NCAA singles title during her sophomore year, while leading the team to another championship. She announced her decision to turn pro soon after.

“Her impact is unparalleled in the annals of Texas women’s tennis history,” Texas head coach Howard Joffe said at the time. “Anyone with a pulse will be rooting for Peyton Stearns to rise to the top in her pro career.”

Stearns hoped then — and continues to hope — that she could achieve results like Collins and further inspire young tennis players to choose to play at the collegiate level before beginning their professional career.

“I thought I was training hard before but it was nowhere near enough. I needed to train harder. I did, I am. It’s paying off.”

Peyton Stearns

Less than three months after leaving school, she made her major main draw debut at the US Open as a wild card. In 2023, her first full year on the WTA Tour, Stearns reached her first final at the Copa Colsanitas. The following month, she reached the third round at the French Open. In September, she advanced to the fourth round at the US Open and her ranking skyrocketed to a career-high of No. 43.

The 2024 season didn’t start out quite as well. It took her five tournaments to record her first singles win, and she couldn’t string consecutive victories together. Her ranking plummeted. She knew she needed to make a change when she brought in Hill in April. He had recently split with Maria Sakkari after six years of working together and two major semifinal appearances, and was looking for a new opportunity.

Since their training block in Nice, Stearns, who is currently ranked No. 62, has won nine matches in three tournaments. On Thursday, after a long day of waiting around due to relentless rain, she finally played in cold, blustery conditions under the lights at night. Stearns recorded one of the biggest wins of her career with a dominant 7-5, 6-2 victory over No. 10 seed and 2022 French Open semifinalist Daria Kasatkina.

Stearns knows it was an impressive win, made even bigger because of the circumstances of the day. But she said she wasn’t trying to put too much importance on it, or her upcoming match against Andreeva, the 17-year-old Russian prodigy.

“I spoke with [Hill] about this and you’ve just got to take it match by match. That’s it,” Stearns said. “You can’t really think of, ‘Oh, it’s the third round or second round or fourth round or this opponent or whatever.’ Because then you kind of get caught up in emotions and those can affect how you can play. I’m just focused on playing my best tomorrow.”

Ironically Stearns won her first match of the year against Andreeva — an up-and-down 6-2, 2-6, 6-1 clash in the opening round in Dubai in February. Stearns said she wasn’t thinking about their previous meeting or Andreeva’s growing reputation ahead of the match. She was going to get ready for it “just like any other match.”

Stearns, who lost in the first round of doubles on Friday afternoon, was going to spend Friday night with her mom — who had come to watch her first-round match and has now pushed back her returning flight twice — and hoped they would be able to find a movie in English on the TV at the hotel.

A win on Saturday would set up a showdown against the winner of the match between Irina-Camelia Begu and Varvara Gracheva, who are both unseeded. But Stearns wasn’t allowing herself to think past Andreeva and getting a good night’s sleep.

And, no matter what, Stearns will have ended the clay season with her first goal already achieved. Now she and Hill are focused on the next target: Being seeded at the US Open when it gets underway in August.

“I think it’s going to happen,” Stearns said. “It’s nice to have a goal that’s not based solely on week-to-week results, but a broader goal that I can achieve over a period of time. It’s something that I keep in the back of my mind and it inspires me every day. But I do also have a daily goal and it’s to give everything I have. I can only get better from there.”

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