In French debut, Peyton Stearns stuns ex-champ Jelena Ostapenko

ByABC News
May 31, 2023, 10:19 AM

Like many kids, Peyton Stearns enjoyed participating in sports and tried her hand at plenty.

"Soccer, gymnastics, basketball, tennis, whatever," the 21-year-old American said Wednesday at the French Open in Paris after eliminating 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 to reach the third round at a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.

Then Stearns paused, before adding with a chuckle: "Well, not so much tennis."

By her own admission, she picked up tennis relatively late for someone who would end up at its highest level, starting private lessons at age 8. It wasn't until about three or four years later, the 2022 NCAA champion for the University of Texas explained, that she decided to focus on holding a racket.

"Gymnastics was very structured. I didn't like that so much. I liked to do what I want when I wanted," said Stearns, who had never played in the French Open's main draw until this week. "I chose tennis because I loved that you can just hit the living daylights out of the ball."

So that's what she does, and quite effectively against the 17th-seeded Ostapenko, outhitting a big hitter -- Stearns compiled more winners, 30-29 -- and leaving the field at Roland Garros with just one remaining woman who has won the title there: No. 1 Iga Swiatek, the champion in 2020 and 2022 who plays her second-round match Thursday. Barbora Krejcikova, the 2021 winner, lost in the first round.

"Sometimes I surprise myself with how lethal my ball comes off [the racket] sometimes for my opponents and how it really puts them in trouble," Stearns said. "Maybe I didn't realize that earlier on, but playing against top players, I realize that it is true. It comes off pretty heavy and big, and that's how I play. Definitely helps with confidence."

Her victory over Ostapenko can be placed alongside a slew of early upsets in Paris, where the sometimes odd bounces of the red clay and the changing weather conditions can contribute to unexpected outcomes.

No. 5 seed Caroline Garcia of France was defeated by Anna Blinkova 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, meaning 17 of 32 seeded women already were gone before the second round was halfway finished. In the men's bracket, No. 2 seed Daniil Medvedev bowed out Tuesday against a qualifier ranked 127nd.

"I feel like at Roland Garros, it's tricky with the clay," said No. 3 Jessica Pegula, who advanced Wednesday when her opponent, Camila Giorgi, stopped playing because of knee pain after dropping the first set. "You can see, to me, it feels like, a lot more upsets."

Do not tell Stearns hers was a stunning result, even though she is ranked 69th in her first full season on tour and carried a 0-1 career Slam record into this week.

"I expected this out of myself. Maybe not this early in my career. ... I'm ahead of what I projected myself doing," she said, "but by no means cutting myself short."

Stearns had her own little cheering section at Court 14, a group that included her mother, Denise, Stearns' coach, her coach's girlfriend and a friend, which helped.

So did Stearns' boundless self-belief, which she said allowed her to settle down amid some feelings she described as "crazy, nerve-wracking, overwhelming -- all the emotions into one."

Her tennis idol growing up was Maria Sharapova, who won five Grand Slam titles and reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings. Sharapova was a powerful ball striker who found her initial success on faster surfaces such as grass courts, winning Wimbledon at age 17, and hard courts, her next major championships coming at the US Open and Australian Open. But Sharapova eventually did collect two French Open titles later in her career.

That's not why Stearns came to be a fan, though.

"My mom and I loved watching her because of her outfits," Stearns said with a snicker. "My mom's a big shopper."

In other results,  Elina Svitolina rallied past qualifier Storm Hunter 2-6, 6-3, 6-1 only hours after husband Gael Monfils won a five-set thriller in Tuesday night's session. No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka fought off a determined challenge from fellow Belarusian Iryna Shymanovich to win 7-5, 6-2. And  Daria Kasatkina, a semifinalist at last year's French Open, moved into the third round with a 6-3, 6-4 win over Marketa Vondrousova.

"It's fun to watch, but to play against Marketa is very tough," Kasatkina said. "Physically, it was a big battle. The second set was so tough."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.