‘I Was One of Those Kids’

Maria Sharapova With the U.S. Open scheduled to begin in just a few days, tennis

Maria Sharapova

With the U.S. Open scheduled to begin in just a few days, tennis star Sloane Stephens is anxious to hit the court — and stay safe while she’s doing it.

“I’m a super germaphobe, so I’m worried about not getting anyone sick or me not getting sick,” Stephens tells PEOPLE of competing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’m just really paranoid. Sometimes I think more about, am I doing the right thing? Do I need to change my mask? Do I need to wash it? I like to take precautions,” she continues. “And so I think sometimes I am a little bit over the top with just trying to be aware of my surroundings.”

While she’s on the court, though, the 27-year-old won’t have germs on her mind — Stephens is hoping to capture the tournament’s iconic trophy once again, after first winning it in 2017. But this time, Stephens won’t only be looking to outlast her opponents once the event kicks off on Aug. 31 in Queens, New York, she’ll also be raising money to help young athletes.

For every ace completed by Stephens and other players at the Open, Mercedes-Benz will donate $50 to the United States Tennis Association’s “Rally to Rebuild” initiative. The company is calling the program “Ace the U.S. Open.” The final donation will be equally distributed to three National Junior Tennis and Learning (NJTL) chapters supported by the USTA Foundation: the Sloane Stephens Foundation chapter, a local Atlanta NJTL chapter, and an NJTL chapter in the Northeast. (An “Ace” is a point-winning serve that’s unreturned by the receiver.)

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Al Bello/Getty Images Sloane Stephens

“I think it’s a really cool opportunity since the U.S. Open is very different this year,” Stephens says of the program. “This is something that we can all get behind and it’s for a good cause. And it’s something we’re all super passionate about — helping junior tennis and NJTL chapters and with the USTA. I’m super excited to be a part of it.”

Since it was founded seven years ago, Stephens’ organization has focused on supporting after-school tutoring, education, the adoption of healthy lifestyles, and improved physical fitness for young people.

“Tennis has given me an amazing opportunity in life, so many opportunities to travel the world and meet people,” Stephens says. “I think we should all be giving back to junior tennis and people who are looking to play the game. To those who don’t want to because they think tennis is too expensive, or think you need a coach or whatever it is.”

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According to the USTA Foundation, the NJTL network includes over 250 nonprofit youth development organizations that offer free or affordable tennis and education programs around the country. The groups benefit over 160,000 youth every year.

“They provide coaching, they provide fitness and tutors and all of these things,” Stephens says. “I think it’s really important to get behind youth tennis and especially youth in sports, girls in sports. That’s something that NJTL is very passionate about, and I think this initiative speaks to that … I think at this time, it’s amazing to be able to support things and also get kids moving and going and playing tennis.”

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Supporting these programs is especially important to Stephens, as she benefitted from them while pursuing her tennis passion as a child.

“I grew up playing in an NJTL across the street from my house. That’s why I’m super passionate about grassroots tennis and developing the game is because I was one of those kids who came out of parks and rec and NJTL,” she says. “I was one of those kids who just loved the game and loved tennis because I had a really amazing first coach. Without NJTL and these programs, there might not be more of me. I think by supporting them, creates an opportunity to make kids like myself.”

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