Earlier this month, Peyton Stearns, who describes herself as bordering on OCD, completely blanked and forgot to book herself a spot in the Rome qualifying draw.  

“I don’t know why I didn’t click on the box,” she said Tuesday. “So I didn’t play that week. But it is what it is. It’s not happening again.”

Actually, it might have been the best thing that’s happened in her nascent career. Because that lapse, fortuitous in retrospect, is probably why the 22-year-old American finds herself owning a first-career Hologic WTA Tour title and a second-round berth at Roland Garros.

On Thursday, she beat No.10 seed Daria Kasatkina 7-5, 6-2 and matched her third-round debut here a year ago.

The catalyst, Stearns said, is her coach of less than one month, Tom Hill. 

He was born in Great Britain, played at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California and was hired as a hitting partner at IMG Academy in Florida, where Maria Sharapova was among his collaborators. After a brief stint with Danielle Collins in 2018, one in which Collins broke the Top 50 for the first time, Hill began working with Maria Sakkari.

Sakkari herself cracked the Top 10 during their six-year alliance and advanced to two Grand Slam semifinals. But then, with the domino effect so common in professional tennis, there was a coaching realignment. When Jessica Pegula felt she needed a change, she dismissed David Witt at the end of the 2023 season. When he became available, Sakkari hired Witt, parting ways with Hill.

Champions Reel: How Peyton Stearns won Rabat 2024

A month ago, Stearns was ready for some guidance. In the spring of 2022, as a student at the University of Texas, she won the NCAA Division 1 singles national championship. Her 2023 record on the tour was a respectable 16-14, and her ranking rose to No.49.

This year, it was tough sledding. After losing in the first round of Madrid to Tatjana Maria, she had lost 10 of 13 matches, her ranking had plummeted to No.87, and she was grappling with some big questions.

Hill helped provide the answers. After taking the month of March off, he made a list of five young players with potential he’d consider coaching. Stearns was on the list, and when her agent called, a deal was done. Next thing, he was on a flight from Dubai to Madrid only a day before Stearns lost her first-round match.

They decided to play back-to-back WTA 125s in Saint-Malo, France and Parma, Italy. 

“I didn’t sugarcoat it,” Hill said Wednesday. “I told her, ‘Look, you’ve been losing a lot -- your record is pretty horrendous. We need to go down a level and win some matches. And then slowly earn the right to be playing these bigger tournaments.’”

Stearns won an encouraging four of six matches, and because she blew the qualifying deadline for Rome there was some space on the calendar. Those 10 days would change everything.

It began when she lost in the Parma quarterfinals to Renata Zarazua. Afterward, Hill sent her straight back to the practice court. There were three more grueling days in Saint-Malo and another week in Nice -- Hill reached out to Patrick Mouratoglou, asking if they could work out at his academy.

The daily regime:

  • A 30 to 45-minute run in the morning, including interval training.
  • Two-and-a-half hours of practice, lots of movement, lots of sparring.
  • A second practice in the afternoon, running 90 to 100 minutes.
  • Finally, a 45-minute session lifting weights in the gym.

“Just brutal, brutal stuff,” Hill said. “And then I’d say, ‘Go back, get room service, sleep. And we’ll replicate it tomorrow.’

“I coached Maria [Sakkari] … Believe me, I know how the top girls train. I told her, ‘If you want me to really help you, you’ve got to let me train you how the top girls train.’”

Said Stearns: “He was there pushing me every step of the way -- in a very positive way. He’s helped me realize that my limits are a lot [less] than what I expect.

“Honestly, I think that’s why I’m doing so well right now.”

It all came together in Rabat, Morocco. Stearns trailed Lucia Bronzetti 5-0 in the third set of the quarterfinals -- and, saving two match points, won the last seven games. Down to Viktoriya Tomova 4-1 in the third set of the semifinal, Stearns rallied to win in a tiebreak. The two matches required exactly six hours.

“I think in Indian Wells, if I would have won that match, I would have collapsed,” Stearns said. “But I think mentally I’m much stronger now.”

It showed in the final, when she took down Mayar Sherif 6-2, 6-1 to collect her first tour-level trophy. Stearns celebrated with a handstand (both she and her mother, Denise, are former gymnasts) and was so tired she didn’t fully realize what she had accomplished.

“I think I was more relieved that I had a day off,” Stearns said, laughing.

With Hill, it’s a heavy dose of tough love. And Stearns accepts it.

“Whatever I say, it’s almost like she’s a robot -- she just does it,” Hill said. “One of the things I didn’t like was her whining on the court. I told her, `If you whine again, I’m going to make you run 30 minutes on the treadmill. She had a match where she whined and I said, `You’re running.’ 

And she got ‘round the treadmill and asked, `What speed?’

“I was like, `Whoa, I can be firm with this girl.’”

After scrambling to get to Paris -- after a few hours of sleep, she caught an early Sunday flight, took a nap and celebrated her title with some ice cream -- that resilience has already been on display at Roland Garros. Stearns dropped her first five match points in the second set against qualifier Lucija Ciric Bagaric on Tuesday, but came back to win the first-round match 6-3, 6-7(8), 7-6[6] in a super-tiebreak.

Hill, at 29, is younger than most coaches. 

“He keeps it very real with what I’m doing,” Stearns said. “He’s very positive when I’m doing positive things. And when I need a little slap on the hand, he gives me it.

“But I think the biggest thing is I have an identity of my game right now. And I’m building off that.”

That identity is a huge forehand, all timing and tempo, a more-than-serviceable serve -- and some unnerving patience on clay for one so young.

“Look, on the hard courts,” Stearns said, “the points are going to finish a little bit quicker. But on a clay court the hardest thing for me is to accept the mentality that the ball’s going to come back a few more times.”

Kasatkina, a finalist recently in Charleston and a semifinalist here two years ago, will be a handful. She beat Stearns at the Australian Open earlier this year, but the match went three sets.

“I know what I’m going to get,” Stearns said. “It’s a physical match, a lot of balls are going to come back.

“I know I can last three hours. If need be, I can make the match go that long.”