By Austin Chappell
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Watch Oklahoma State’s Malika Rose play on the same court with Sloane Stephens, tennis’ newest young star, and you might not know the difference.
Rose, a senior from Miramar, Fla., is arguably the face of the OSU women’s tennis program. She has been the driving force behind the team’s second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth, and just led the Cowgirls to their best regular season finish since 2007.
On the other side of the spectrum, Stephens is the sport’s rising new talent, sitting at No. 17 in the world at the ripe age of 20.
Despite the differences in each player’s career status, the two have a history that helps them maintain a deep friendship today.
“Sloane and I first became friends when I was about 13,” Rose said. “We both grew up in Florida, and we met at a state tournament that was held every June. We actually played in the finals of the back draw, but I won’t say who won or lost.”
“We kept seeing each other more and more at different events, and then a few years down the road, we starting training at the same academy. That’s when we became really close. I was at her house all the time.”
The two young stars have taken a nearly identical path throughout their tennis careers. Growing up in Florida, the two both attended the Broward Virtual School in Florida, where they trained together and battled competitively. They listen to some of the same music, and even enjoy similar pre-match meals.
When it comes to playing style, the two are mirror images of each other. Both sport strong physiques, similar to that of their idol, Serena Williams. The two also consider themselves to be all-court players, meaning they are able to rely on their athleticism to cover the entire court while still having the ability to overpower their opponents with their strength.
“Our games don’t necessarily feed off of each other, we just naturally play in the exact same way,” Rose said. “When it comes to our game styles being so similar, it’s just a coincidence. Our weapons and demeanors are the same. It’s kind of funny to watch her play, because it’s almost like I’m watching myself.”
The pair’s similarities run deep enough to make spectators think the two are more than just training partners.
“Off the court in our personal lives, Sloane and I are pretty different,” Rose said. “She is outgoing, always talking to everybody, while I am kind of the quiet and reserved one.”
“But on the court, people have thought we were sisters. We’ve even lied and said we were sisters before, and people have totally believed us.”
The parallels between the two have kept them in close contact despite the busy travel schedule of Stephens’ professional circuit and Rose’s reign through the Big 12.
So close, that the two text each other after nearly every match.
Rose had a message from Stephens waiting on her after her upset victory over Nebraska’s Mary Weatherholt, who was the 10th-ranked singles player in the country at the time. Stephens also sent Rose congratulatory texts after wins over the 24th, 27th and 43rd-ranked players in the nation, as well as when Rose’s Cowgirls defeat top-seeded Baylor to advance the Big 12 Championship last weekend.
As in every good friendship, Rose always returns the favor. During Stephen’s huge win over Serena Williams in this year’s Australian Open, Rose and two other professionals cheered Stephens on in a group text between the four girls.
“Leading up to the quarterfinals when she played Serena, she was gaining a lot followers and attention before she beat her, and then after she beat Serena, everything blew up.” Rose said. “Watching her look at her phone on TV after her match was crazy, because she was talking to us and looking at our texts. Throughout the whole three weeks that she was there in Australia, she was keeping in touch with us. We would always wish her good luck with all her matches, and she would tell us about how Australia was.”
The motivation shared between Rose and Stephens has pushed the two to new heights, as Stephens takes on some of the toughest players in the world and Rose leads her team into the NCAA Tournament next weekend.
Rose, the Cowgirl’s No. 1 throughout the entire season, will look to guide her squad past Long Beach State in the first round, and eventually past the UCLA-Army winner and into the Sweet 16.
Meghan Blevins, OSU’s No. 2 and another one of Rose’s best friends, said she knows Stephens will be pulling for Rose when the Cowgirls travel to Los Angeles and begin their NCAA Tournament journey.
“They’re always talking to each other in whatever way they can,” Blevins said. “You can tell that Malika is motivated by Sloane, and that Sloane is motivated by Malika. They’re a great team together.”