03/19/2018 15:32 EDT

Sloane Stephens Talks Resilience And Representation In Tennis

"I think the journey is just perseverance and just kinda staying true to yourself," she says.

Marc DesRosiers/ Icon SMI/Corbis via Getty Images
Sloane Stephens plays in the first round of the Rogers Cup tournament in Montreal on Aug. 4, 2014.

If there were a theme to Sloane Stephens’ journey, it would be resilience. From overcoming a foot injury in 2016 to dominating the 2017 U.S. Open, the tennis star has fought through many obstacles.

“It took obviously a lot of hard work, and when I wasn’t playing, I grew a lot in just rehab,” the Grand Slam champ told HuffPost. “It was a tough time, and I think when I was on the court again and I was able to play, I was just so happy to just be back.”

The athlete has incorporated her story into a video for the chocolate milk-drinking campaign “Built With Chocolate Milk.” As the first black woman to be part of the campaign, Stephens said she’s using the collaboration to speak about everything from the trials of being a top athlete to what it feels like to be a representative of women of color in tennis.

Looking back, Stephens said she knows her determination is what propelled her to where she is now. 

After her January 2017 foot surgery, she trained, worked at the Tennis Channel and prepared for her return. But she never expected to win the U.S. Open in August, just a month after her comeback.  

“There was no real thought to it,” she said. “It was just getting out here and playing.”

However, there was one person who knew from the beginning that Stephens would dominate.

At the beginning of last year’s U.S. Open, Stephens crossed paths with sportscaster and former professional tennis player Mary Carillo, whom she’d met while at the Tennis Channel. It was the beginning of the tournament, and while Sloane was just happy to be back, Carillo saw more.

“She’s like, ‘You’re playing so great, I think you could win the U.S. Open.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t really know about that,’” Stephens joked. “But I was just so focused on having a good time and just having fun that everything just kind of fell into place. I think the journey is just perseverance and just kinda staying true to yourself.”

I think the journey is just perseverance and just kinda staying true to yourself.

Tennis, like golf and swimming, is a sport typically marketed to whiter audiences, with notoriously few women of color represented at its top levels. Yet from Venus and Serena Williams to Chanda Rubin and Zina Garrison, there have been numerous women breaking barriers and changing norms. Now Stephens is one of them, too.

“They set so many standards for us, and I think without them having done it already before, I think it would be a little bit different for me,” Stephens said. “But once one person does it, I think it kinda opens the door for others.”

Stephens went on to detail just how important it is for young boys and girls to see themselves reflected in tennis and beyond. She remembers singer Kelly Rowland in her Destiny’s Child era as one of the main people she looked up to, simply because they looked alike.

“Things like that I think are really impactful,” she said. “So, in the position I am in now, I’m happy because little girls and little boys can look up to me, and I think it’s a great position to be in.”

Whether or not tennis is a person’s chosen path, Stephens says the goal is always to be an example and keep yourself focused on the bigger picture.

“Life is like a long journey,” she tells those who want to follow in her footsteps.

“There’s gonna be so many high highs and there’s gonna be some really low lows that you kinda just have to take in stride. You never know when your comeback or success is right around the corner.”