No. 32 Pounces On Open

“I’m not just sitting twiddling my thumbs ,” said Alexandra Stevenson, the 32nd-best female tennis player in the world. It was a balmy August afternoon in New Haven, Conn., two days before the start of the Pilot Pen tournament-the preferred women’s tune-up for the U.S. Open, which begins Aug. 26 in Flushing Meadows-and Ms. Stevenson was eating a turkey burger at the Rainbow Café and describing her many ambitions.

“I have a whole plan,” she said. “I plan being kind of like Jennifer Lopez: I want to do music and I want to do acting, and then I also love fashion. I want to go to N.Y.U. film school, but I want to be an actress-I always said I wanted to go to the Yale School of Drama-so it’s kind of a Catch-22. There are so many things I want to do, it’s kind of crazy.”

Ms. Stevenson’s mother, Samantha, a loquacious former journalist, was sitting alongside and interjected that her daughter wouldn’t mind a column in Vogue , either.

“We understand Anna Wintour is a tennis fan!” Mom said.

Samantha Stevenson, who now works full-time as her daughter’s traveling coach, general manager and public-relations consultant, was clutching a plastic shopping bag containing gifts for Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf’s baby: a wee-sized Yale T-shirt and a copy of the book Make Way for Ducklings . The book’s title was kind of apt: That night Mr. Agassi, 32, would be soundly beaten in the semifinals of a Washington, D.C., tournament by James Blake, a 23-year-old dreadlocked Harvard dropout with a modeling contract and many corporate endorsements.

Though Mr. Agassi may be ending his run at the top of the rankings, his legacy is apparent: When the U.S. Open commences, New York City will be welcoming not so much players as artfully assembled media packages: the indomitable Williams sisters, who collect Grand Slams but speak of retiring to become fashion designers; Anna Kournikova, she of the Enrique Iglesias videos and pronounced title deficit; and upstarts like Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, who look like boy-band extras. Even Pete Sampras’ brushed-steel brand is now maintained by the William Morris Agency. The unofficial M.C. of the extravaganza will be that cuddly best-selling author and crossover television personality, John McEnroe.

Ms. Stevenson’s berth in this firmament, however, remains unfixed. Her star has dimmed somewhat since 1999, when she became the first player since Mr. McEnroe to make it to the semifinals as a qualifier-at which point she was outed by a Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reporter as the illegitimate daughter of basketball star Julius (Dr. J.) Erving. A brief, intense period of tabloid harassment was followed by a precipitous plummet in the rankings, and while she can now promenade the streets unpestered, it’s hard to figure out whether she finds this a relief or a disappointment.

“People yell out ‘Venus!’ sometimes, and I’m like, ‘Hello, are you blind ?'” said Ms. Stevenson, who is 6-foot-1 and 156 pounds, with skin the color of cappuccino and a generous mane of curly dark hair that she wears scraped back into a high, girlish ponytail. She turned 21 last December but has never had a real boyfriend or a real drink. “I’ve tasted champagne, and that tastes nice,” she said.

Ms. Stevenson was raised on the outskirts of La Jolla, a ritzy suburb of San Diego, and was put through the full ritzy-suburban battery of lessons and programs: swimming, ballet, ice-skating, tap, jazz, gymnastics, soccer, basketball, softball, violin, piano, madrigals. Samantha Stevenson wanted her daughter to be cultured, regularly taking her to the theater, which the two both pronounce “the- ay -ter,” with a bit of a flourish. “I just used to run around the house singing, ‘Fame! I’m gonna live forever!'” said Alexandra Stevenson. “I wanted to be on Broadway.”

Because her mother was a sportswriter, she also got to meet the old-time racquet men Don Budge, Ellsworth Vines and Bobby Riggs (all of whom eventually gravitated to Hollywood, in their fashion). Her classic, all-court tennis game, with its one-handed backhand and feline service motion, strongly recalls that of Pete Sampras, and that’s because both players were coached in their formative years by Pete Fischer, a pediatrician who later served three years in jail after pleading guilty to child-molestation charges. He is still the Stevensons’ main man. “We don’t talk about his ‘issues,'” said Samantha Stevenson.

Dr. Fischer assessed his protégée in a telephone interview from Rolling Hills, Calif., where he remains on parole, possibly until May 2004. “Her biggest asset by far is her power, which she needs to learn how to use, and needs to learn to use more,” he said. “She probably doesn’t come to net as much as she can, even now, in a relatively early stage of becoming a net player.” Asked to handicap the current women’s field, he chuckled slightly and said, “After Serena and Venus, or Venus and Serena? I think it’s wide open. They’re really playing a level above everybody else. They’re athletes who happened to pick tennis as their vehicle, which is what I would like to see Alexandra become. She has the power to match them, and her strokes are prettier. What she doesn’t do is move with them and get tough with them. I think it’s psychological.”

To shore up Alexandra’s mental reserves, the Stevensons have hired Kimball Joyce, a martial-arts consultant for the Mortal Kombat movies they know-half-reverently, half-amusedly-only as “Sultan.” “We think he worked with a sheik,” said Samantha Stevenson. “He does all the movie stars.” Alexandra trains at Gold’s Gym with Adam Friedman, a referral from the basketball player Lisa Leslie; she has also worked with the fitness expert Gunnar Peterson, whose clientele, to Alexandra’s considerable delight, includes Cris Judd, Jennifer Lopez’s ex-husband, as well as the actresses Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Connelly. “He’s so Hollywood, so I of course loved it,” Alexandra said, applying shimmery pink lip gloss with a pinky. “My mom’s going, ‘Alexandra, you don’t need Hollywood right now-you need tennis !'”

An hour or so after lunch, Ms. Stevenson was in little white short-shorts and a red tank top on a torrid practice court across from her small, freckled hitting partner, Andy Stewart, a buddy of men’s-tour hopeful Taylor Dent. As the athlete whomped out serve after 110 m.p.h. serve, her mother-clad in blue clamdiggers, a white shirt and a big sun hat-scooted around, retrieving the occasional ball and stirring scoops of Dura Carb powder into bottles of water, then shaking them up with the practiced air of one mixing formula for a baby.

“Her game is a slow-developing game,” Samantha Stevenson said. “She has to work on keeping her power in. Return of serve-returning is huge these days. They all have two-handed backhands, and they all hit the serve to her one-handed backhand …. Alexandra, try to stay down ! It’s only a few more minutes.” Mr. Stewart’s neck was turning pink in the sun. Mom went over to dispense a bit of advice, and her daughter responded with mild petulance. There was a smattering of pre-adolescent boy fans in the stands, and one of them was hissing gently for no particular reason.

Sssss …. sssss ….

Ms. Stevenson netted a forehand.

“God, don’t lose your grip,” she muttered.

Samantha Stevenson returned to the sidelines. “Alexandra’s very opinionated,” she said. “I was saying-it was so hot-I meant to say, ‘Simulate practice as if it’s a match.’ I said ‘assimilate’ instead of ‘simulate.’ She cracked. She said, ‘Mom, that’s really stupid!’ So I said, ‘Whatever!’ and she said, ‘Whatever!'”

Their unorthodox coaching arrangement (not that any coaching arrangement in women’s tennis seems entirely orthodox-one is always glimpsing pouty European Lolitas in hotel lobbies with older, fiercely tanned men and thinking, O.K., why exactly do I feel uncomfortable about these two getting into the elevator together ?) means that Ms. Stevenson tends not to socialize with the tour rank and file, though numerically speaking, she is still part of it.

“We don’t live or die by the tour, but these girls do,” said her mother. “It’s like the movie, A League of Their Own. “

“I think they want everyone … as sheep ,” said Alexandra Stevenson.

Sometimes a USTA coach comes and offers his input, but this help can be sporadic and listless. As special preparation for the Open, where Ms. Stevenson has lost in the first round for four consecutive years, they have enlisted John Austin, the brother of former champion Tracy Austin, to provide exclusive guidance for as long as she lasts in the tournament. The importance of showbiz is not the only lesson the Stevensons have absorbed from an Andre Agassified tennis culture (years before she signed with Nike, Ms. Stevenson devised an on-court pirouetting backhand move she dubbed the “Air Alex.”). They also know that to buffer themselves against this most in-your-face of slams, they need to lock down a loyal entourage. “It’s important when you go into these big tournaments to have someone that you trust and will be on your court and not talking like a peacock, like he’s the star ,” said Ms. Stevenson. “That’s happened in past years. Distracted, or drinking beer with his buddies-that’s happened, too. You have to keep your team tight, not let them wander around.”

And Team Stevenson comes at a price. To date this year, Ms. Stevenson has collected $181,238 in prize money, most of which, she and her mother say, is spent on taxes and traveling and training fees. Dunlop provides her racquets. Nike outfits her with active wear and shoes, but is not featuring her in any ads at the moment.

Ms. Stevenson resents the heavy-breathing media and endorsement attention drawn by Ashley Harkleroad, a Kournikova look-alike who is ranked 166th in the world but already has a Hollywood agent and prominent displays at Niketown. “It’s all blonde,” she said. “It’s stupid. I think it’s a Marilyn Monroe complex of males 40 and up.”

Carlos Fleming, a representative of the sports marketing firm IMG who has worked with Ms. Stevenson, suggested that the burden of responsibility now falls on his client to keep herself in the public eye. “It kind of goes in waves, you know,” he said. “You’ll get this first wave where someone says, ‘This is the next great player,’ and then maybe a year or so later, you may not hear as much. When they start to win, that’s when that next major wave comes.”

One could sense the telltale vapor of the ubiquitous Nike swoosh creeping even into his speech.

Showered and massaged after practice, Ms. Stevenson was now at the wheel of a tournament-provided teal Chrysler PT Cruiser, which she likened to a “big hearse.” She said she lusts for a silver convertible BMW.

She had changed into gray track pants, a white wraparound top and $100 Gucci sunglasses. Last summer’s hit, the Jennifer Lopez–Ja Rule song “I’m Real,” was on the CD player. Ms. Stevenson sang along, prettily. She is taking voice lessons, and dance lessons, in the off-season.

“I like this song,” she said.

“I don’t like this song,” piped up Mom, suddenly materializing in the back seat.

Ms. Stevenson’s pop-culture diet includes the full complement of women’s magazines-she has impressive recall of the names of New York socialites-and the best-selling book The Nanny Diaries . “I loved it, it was so good-though Mrs. X was so mean, I wanted to hit her,” she said. She also liked Steve Martin’s book Shopgirl , about a woman behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus. Naturally, she and her mother are planning a best-seller of their own. “Our book is not going to be like those worthless tennis books that are spiteful and tell-all,” said Samantha Stevenson. “We don’t care about them. The book will be experiences in life, traveling and meeting people, cities, and our problems.” The two told a long story in tandem-something about visiting the Vatican, and cutting the line, and tying pashmina scarves around their waists to pass the modesty test at the door.

There were little diamond crosses in each of Alexandra Stevenson’s ears. She said she’s a Christian and believes in God, which is one of the reasons she is fond of Beyoncé Knowles, the spiritual Destiny’s Child singer and Austin Powers star. “She’s awesome,” she said. “She’s so big now … I think it will be really cool when I’m really famous and get to call up a designer and say, ‘Hi, I’m Alexandra Stevenson, can you send me this ?’ When I was in New York last, my mother called Kate Spade and she gave me 20 percent off, so that was cool.”

” Thirty percent off,” said her mother.

“She didn’t call Marc Jacobs,” complained Ms. Stevenson.

“I did !”

“But she didn’t get to talk to him …. I think Marc Jacobs might do it for me,” said Ms. Stevenson dreamily. “He wouldn’t do it for me now. But if I win the U.S. Open, he might.”

No. 32 Pounces On Open