Former Longhorn Peyton Stearns is Making Mark in Pro Tennis
By Corey Smith
On a chilly, floodlit night in late February, Peyton Stearns pumped her fist exultingly, shouting in the direction of her coach’s box. Stearns had just secured her first Women’s Tennis Association victory at the inaugural ATX Open.
Stearns defeated Katie Boulter, then the 121st-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, during a three-hour, 22-minute match in front of a sparse, yet enthusiastic crowd at Westwood Country Club in Austin, a city in which she had already etched her name alongside some of the greatest college tennis players in Texas history.
Since winning the NCAA women’s singles tennis championship for the University of Texas at Austin in May 2022 — the first UT athlete to do so — Stearns has been excelling on the professional circuit
The Mason, Ohio, native has climbed to 89th in the world rankings, and has won nearly twice as many matches as she’s lost, 113 wins and 66 losses, and has compiled more than $295,000 in prize money.
Following her win against Boulter in the opening round of the ATX Open, Stearns would breeze through a second round match against Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund, 6-3, 7-5, before bowing out in the quarterfinals to fellow American Katie Volynets.
The next week during the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Southern California, Stearns would rally from down a set to defeat Rebeka Masarova, currently ranked 91st in the world. Stearns went on to lose in the next round. She would also team up in the same tournament’s doubles event with Danielle Collins — a player who has climbed as high as No. 7 in the world and a two-time NCAA singles champion at the University of Virginia — as the duo advanced to the round of 16.
Stearns’ college coach, Howard Joffe, identified two factors to help explain the 21-year-old’s professional success.
“Peyton is very powerful. She’s an excellent athlete. She has all the attributes and very few areas to exploit in terms of weaknesses,” Joffe said. “The second thing is her self-assuredness; that is, when Peyton hits the court, she sort of expects to win.”
Stearns is accustomed to dominating. She established an 18-8 overall record during her freshman season with the Longhorns, and the program clinched its first women’s team national title in more than a quarter century. During her sophomore season, Stearns won 33 of 35 matches en route to yet another team championship and the national title in singles. After the national title, Stearns turned pro.
Joffe pointed to Stearns’ showing in the U.S. Open in August 2022, when she came within two points of defeating the world’s No. 28 player, Ekaterina Alexandrova, as evidence that she has the skills to be a perennial contender on the professional tour.
“I’m quite certain Peyton’s intention is not just trying to play among them, but to beat them,” Joffe said. During the 2023 season, Stearns has won 24 matches and only lost six times.
Stearns has found early success in part because of a powerful serve, which has enabled her to win 60% of her service games on the WTA Tour, tied for 88th worldwide among active players.
Stearns said she got great enjoyment out of smacking the ball as hard as she could when she started playing tennis at 7 or 8 years old. “I didn’t really care where it went at that age,” she said. She has since gained a reputation for precision and smart shotmaking, moving opponents back and forth along the baseline with a crafty inside-out forehand. Deploying it like a pitcher would an offspeed pitch, that shot was key in her dismantling of Clervie Ngounoue during a 6-1, 6-0 win in the H-E-B Women’s Pro Tennis Open title match in Austin on October 2022.
“I think it’s a big weapon I have, you know, setting up the game, I look for that shot. It’s pretty big,” Stearns said to Reporting Texas following the October International Tennis Federation title win in Austin. “When I do look for my forehand, it seems that I play a lot better than I do if I’m not.”
As is the case with so many world-class athletes, success often stems from a strong base in the form of a family support system.
“With respect to sort of values and priorities, with the Stearns family, family comes first,” Joffe said. “That was something that stood out on the first day she moved in. Her brother was here and literally spent all day helping her move in … You know, most adolescent brothers would be off, God knows where, but not helping their sister.”
Stearns and her brother, Preston, who plays tennis at Ohio State, remain close.
“My brother and I support each other 100%. He’s always been there to push me in everything I do. We are extremely competitive with each other, and when I say competitive, I mean in every aspect,” Stearns said.
“I think the fact my parents raised two tennis players who went to top D1 schools with little to no knowledge of tennis is crazy, especially when most tennis players originate from tennis families or know what they are doing,” she said.
Stearns’ mother, Denise Stearns was a member of the UT gymnastics team.
“When she was younger, she had a book that she made, and it says, ‘I want to go to the University of Texas,’ Denise Stearns said. “I found it and I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”
“My mom surprisingly didn’t push UT on me during the commitment process but was very happy with my decision,” Stearns said.
From her time in the UT program, Stearns became well known as an animal lover. Before the NCAA tournament her freshman year, she adopted a stray turtle and bought a fish tank to take care of it.
Therein may lie one of the keys to future opponents’ game plans in facing Stearns, Joffe said.
“That’s a soft spot for her,” Joffe said. “So if her opponent can cloak herself in maybe a Bernese Mountain Dog costume, she might get a bit of respite that way.”
Stearns said getting to play professionally in the biggest stadiums in tennis has been a dream come true.
“Growing up, I would have never even thought I would be where I am today,” she said.