Without This Woman

Tennis Champ Sloane Stephens On The Woman Who Taught Her To Give Back

"She always taught me to appreciate those around me, to learn from them."

by Sloane Stephens
Sloane Stephens and her mother, Sybil Smith.
Noam Galai / Stringer, Icon Sportswire / Getty Images, Caroline Wurtzel / Bustle
Without This Woman

My mom always secretly wanted me to be a tennis player, even though she had been a college swimmer. My first swim lesson, at age 6, was one of those get-thrown-in-the-water, teach-yourself-to-swim kind of things. (I said, “I’m never doing this again, ask for your money back.”) So she was convinced that tennis was for me.

It’s a good thing that she’s literally obsessed with tennis. I think that’s why she’s gotten so involved in my foundation, the Sloane Stephens Foundation, which provides educational opportunities and exposure to tennis for kids K-12 in Compton, California. With the pandemic, it was really important for us to make sure that the families the foundation serves could be stable. A lot of our kids depend on school breakfasts and lunches. [With donations from corporate partner Fresh n' Lean, the foundation was able to provide food for 135 families through contactless pickups.] A lot of our students and employees are DACA recipients. We’ve been doing virtual workshops on mindfulness and meditation. We worked on launching a virtual summer camp, since kids are home and they need something to do.

My mom and I are very hands-on with the community the foundation serves. I called her the other day and she was driving down to Compton to drop off lavender essential oils for a kid who was having trouble sleeping. That’s the kind of person she is.

When I was around 10 years old, I remember my mom saying that we can’t help ourselves if we’re not open to helping others. She always taught me to appreciate those around me, to learn from them, to be accepting and understand where they may be coming from. In order to help myself, I had to be open to doing that.

My mom was constantly saying how we need to give back growing up, but obviously, she had to get it from somewhere. My grandma was very similar — she and my grandfather founded a girls' group for tutoring, mentoring, and cultural exploration called Young Women of Tomorrow. She was on the school board. She’s still writing checks to the NAACP.

While our communities and the way we helped them are different, with the projects my mom and I have been able to work on during COVID for the foundation, I've never been more productive in my life. I've been able to be laser-focused in a way I normally can't be because I'm usually at a tournament or I'm traveling. [Because of the pandemic, the typical tennis tournament season has slowed down considerably.] For the kids who are part of the foundation, it's really important to have structure and stability. To have people who they know are committed to them, who love them, who support them. I've been really lucky 'cause my mom has done that for me. And now, we can be that for other people.

Women’s Tennis Association player Sloane Stephens is the winner of five WTA titles and one Grand Slam. Following the USTA, ATP Tour, and WTA pause in play at the Western & Southern Open, in recognition of movements for social justice and against racial inequality, Stephens will be playing in the U.S. Open, beginning Aug. 31.

As told to Melanie Mignucci. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Bustle's "Without This Woman" is a series of essays honoring the women who change — and challenge — us every day.