A year ago this time, Peyton Stearns was playing tennis for the University of Texas, trying to navigate her way through opponents from Texas Tech, Central Florida and the celebrated Horned Frogs of TCU.
On Saturday, she’ll face Bianca Andreescu -- who as a teenager won Indian Wells and the US Open in 2019 -- in the biggest match of her 21 years. If she manages to win, she’d most likely play No.1-ranked Iga Swiatek two days later in one of the biggest tennis stadiums on earth.
How do these marvelous possibilities not enter your mind?
“They do,” Stearns admitted in a Friday interview. “It happened after I won my first-round match. I’ve learned in past tournaments that looking too far ahead really hurts you. If you don’t take the match that’s in front of you, you’ll never get to that point.
“So, I almost have to hyper-fix myself on whoever I’m playing instead of who I might be playing. I think that’s been huge, and it helped me [Wednesday], for sure.”
Stearns, who received a wild card from the BNP Paribas Open, dropped the first set to Rebeka Masarova but came back to win 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. It was her 13th victory in her past 14 matches, but Masarova’s ranking of No.92 was a big step up in class for what she’s been accustomed to.
Last spring, Stearns became the first Texas woman to win the NCAA Division 1 singles national championship. She left the school after completing her sophomore year and, ranked No.209, began the season playing ITF events. She won back-to-back titles in Orlando and Rome, Georgia and entered the recent Austin 250 with a 10-match winning streak.
Her first match there, against Katie Boulter, featured three tiebreaks and ran 3 hours, 21 minutes.
“Whew!” Stearns said, exhaling with gusto. “Exhilarating. I was definitely very nervous, wasn’t swinging freely -- and it showed. Third set she’s serving for 5-4 in the breaker, serving big the whole match, and she doubled. Kind of got lucky the nerves settled in on her side."
A victory over Mirjam Bjorklund vaulted her into the quarterfinals. She lost there to Katie Volynets, at No.92, the kind of player she needs to beat to crack the Top 100 -- a position that usually means direct entry into the Grand Slam main draws. Coached by Gabriel Trifu, Stearns is currently No.126.
And while the competition at the ITF level is intense -- “life or death” -- what separates the WTA is the mental aspect.
“At least for me, it’s staying in it longer, if that makes any sense,” she said. “I feel like in college and on the ITF circuit you can get away with certain aspects, but at this level you’re competing with the best of the best so you can't take a shortcut in any direction.
“The best way I’ve found to play through it is to trust my game and take each point on its own, even if the last point didn’t go well.”
Before each point, Stearns tries to get hyped by chanting positive thoughts to herself:
“You are a beast.”
“Hit the serve.”
“Go big or go home.”
One of the things that helped drive her decision to play in college was the success of Danielle Collins, who won the NCAA singles titles twice for the University of Virginia. Stearns realized she could go to school -- and eventually play professional tennis.
The Next Wave Of Stars ✨— ITA (@ITA_Tennis) March 10, 2023
Ben Shelton, Peyton Stearns, and Emma Navarro are all through to the Second Round of the @BNPPARIBASOPEN! They represent three of the past four NCAA Singles National Champions! #WeAreCollegeTennis | #PathwayToThePros pic.twitter.com/dWi6ZIdchG
Her parents, she said, wanted her to go to college so she’d have career choices. An injury to her right foot in the fall of her sophomore year gave her four months off -- and the clarity she needed to make the decision to turn pro. She actually made that call in December, before she even played a match in her championship season.
Stearns hopes that her results, along with the success of 2021 NCAA champion Emma Navarro (Virginia) and 2022 national singles winner Ben Shelton (Florida), will encourage more players to go to college. They all won their first-round matches here in Indian Wells but also face daunting second-rounders. Navarro gets 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez, and Shelton faces defending champion Taylor Fritz.
For Stearns, it comes down to that tired sports cliché that happens to be true -- stay in the moment, try not to get ahead of yourself. Take expectations for example.
“I have a lot,” she said. “The best way I can put my mind at ease is to not have them. In Austin last week, I was putting too much pressure on myself, thinking that I can go far, do well. The nerves and the tightness showed up and I wasn’t swinging freely. This week, going into this tournament the only way I’m going to succeed is if I do the right things.”
Even if she’s facing a Grand Slam singles champion.
“I know she’s had a lot of success and she’s a great player,” Stearns said. “But I’m playing her tomorrow, not [her credentials]. Anyone can show up -- it’s tennis -- I’m excited to get out there and compete.
“I’m looking at it as I’m swinging freely. Might as well enjoy it instead of putting more pressure on myself.”