NEW YORK -- Jamie Hampton and Laura Robson were standing on opposite baselines inside Arthur Ashe Stadium on Tuesday, each gazing at the JumboTron far above the other's head, watching the test run of a commercial starring tennis legend Billie Jean King.
When Robson seemed ready to continue their practice session, Hampton raised a finger, her attention rapt, signaling for one more minute. A few seconds later, the audio cut out and Hampton shook her head and said, "Really?" As in, But I was watching that! Then she smacked a serve at Robson, her friend and occasional practice partner, who's ranked No. 30 in the world.
Here's the thing about Hampton, who's No. 26 in the standings: She seriously can't get enough tennis. Her coaches have to force her to go back to the hotel, where she can see the matches on TV, instead of sitting outside all afternoon, baking in the sun, watching them in person. During an interview with espnW on Tuesday, Hampton was asked what she does in her free time. The 23-year-old American paused and then said, "You mean other than tennis, right?" (For the record: She reads fantasy books like the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia series, enjoys all kinds of puzzles, plays video games and occasionally bakes cookies and tarts.)
Mostly, Hampton is locked in. And right now, we're seeing her play the way she expected she would when, in 2009, against her parents' wishes, she turned pro instead of going to college. (She initially gave a verbal commitment to the University of Florida, under pressure from Mom and Dad.) Finally fully healthy, Hampton has had a career year, advancing to the fourth round at the French Open and third round at the Australian Open. She lost to compatriot Sloane Stephens in the opening round at Wimbledon, but a month later, she advanced to the semifinals of the Bank of the West Classic.
Here in the U.S., most sports fans know about Stephens, the heir apparent to Venus and Serena Williams, but few people have heard of Hampton, the third-highest-ranked American on the WTA Tour, behind only Serena (No. 1) and Stephens (No. 16).
On Monday, Hampton won her first-ever match at the US Open, defeating Lara Arruabarrena of Spain in the opening round 6-4, 6-2. Hampton was scheduled to play Kristina Mladenovic of France on Wednesday.
When it comes to women's tennis in the U.S., we're all asking one question: Who's next? We want to know who will carry the crown, who will bring home the Grand Slams when Venus and Serena finally call it quits. Many people have pegged the 20-year-old Stephens, who defeated Serena at the Australian Open this year, while others look to 18-year-old Madison Keys, who lost on Monday in the opening round to No. 9 seed Jelena Jankovic but has shown flashes of brilliance. There is a stable of U.S. talent -- including Bethanie Mattek-Sands, Melanie Oudin and Lauren Davis -- but will any of them be The One?
Why not Hampton?
After her practice session with Robson on Tuesday morning, Hampton took a quick break before doing some extra fitness. She talked about her goals, and when asked what she most wants to accomplish in tennis, she quickly said, "Right now? Winning this tournament. Winning Grand Slams is the goal -- that's for sure."
Hampton wasn't one of those kids dragged to the country club by her parents, or someone who gets stressed out trying to live up to the family legacy, burdened by expectations. Picture 8-year-old Jamie sitting in front of the living room TV, in tiny Enterprise, Ala., watching two people bounce a bright yellow sphere back and forth, then asking her dad if she could go try that same sport, a game that no one else in the family had ever played.
That's how this whole journey started for Hampton. And essentially from the beginning, as she played on those local courts, met her first coach and started taking lessons, she always dreamed of one thing: going pro and winning Slams. She dabbled in other sports -- quick dips in soccer, basketball, softball and swimming. Oh, and she also tried gymnastics, at which she was particularly bad because she isn't -- how shall we put this -- the most flexible person in the world.
Tennis was always her thing. She enjoyed it, and she was really good at it. But back to that flexibility thing: It has been a double-edged sword for Hampton. At the 2012 French Open, she had to retire from her opening-round match because of back problems. An ensuing MRI showed that she had two herniated disks, and Hampton was devastated, crying, worried about her future. She took an extended break from competition, her first in a long while, and soon realized the injury was more a blessing.
"I had never just had an offseason where I spent months working on my body," Hampton said. "That was the first time I had really done that. We established a base for my lungs and my heart. I also had to make my core and my back as strong as possible."
Hampton took that time to diligently focus on gaining strength. And for fitness, she ran repeats (from 100 yards to 1,000 yards) on the grass, which was better for her back.
"She has made this jump because of a lot of hard work, improved fitness and improved discipline on the court," said Ola Malmqvist, who has been Hampton's coach for the past 17 months. "And there are some things that have gotten better -- her shot selection, her serve -- that need to get even better."
The back injury came just as Hampton was regaining a foothold after having wrist surgery in 2009, which actually sparked her decision to turn pro. As she put it, "After I had the surgery, I was like, 'You know, I always wanted to go pro, that was always my dream, so why not give it a real chance?'"
Hampton had played through the wrist injury, a chip fracture initially diagnosed as tendinitis, for more than three years.
Now we're finally seeing the real Jamie Hampton -- the healthy version, at least, and the grown-up version of the kid who dreamed big and envisioned championships in her future.
"Everyone varies on how they do things, but I like to be all about tennis," Hampton said. "I really enjoy what I do. I like going to watch the matches; I like watching tennis on TV. I don't get out as often as I would for things like sightseeing. I haven't even been out in New York, even though there is a lot to see."
Hampton explained how she liked to spend her prematch evenings: prepping her tennis bag, preparing her water bottles by filling them with electrolytes (she used to have a problem with cramping), basically doing all of the things that might stress her out if she waited until the morning. She even has a little ritual with her rackets.
"So, here's how it goes," she revealed. "I pick up all of my rackets, and I choose the one I'm going to play with. Then I regrip them all, putting the one I'm going to use on the outside. It's inside my bag, but it's the outside racket, so I always know which racket I'm going to pick. Actually, it sounds so stupid coming out of my mouth, doesn't it?"
Not really. Not if you understand that Jamie Hampton is really into tennis.