Stephen Stege is a man who looks you in the eye when he’s talking to you. Even while sitting in a tree at the request of a photographer, his arms wrapped around two branches that bifurcate the trunk into thick segments, Stephen Stege manages to look determined and poised — even emblematic — of grit.
He’s neither tall nor long-limbed, attributes most often associated with world-class tennis players, but he’s going pro anyway. And in a sport he describes as “90 percent mental,” his mental fortitude might be enough to bring him success.
All of this, of course, is in the near future. For the moment, Stege is thinking about the Big West Tournament, scouting reports he’s studied on various opponents and maintaining a physical fitness that might prove the deciding factor in a match that could last anywhere from two to five hours.
The UC Irvine men’s tennis team is entering the Big West Tournament as the No. 1 seed after a stellar season in conference play, and the winner of the Big West is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA Championships.
Stege is 21 years old and has been playing tennis competitively since he was 14. “You’ve got to get serious at the sport you’re playing at an early age,” he said.
That dedication to tennis became the gateway to college scholarships to play at several universities. He was faced with a decision to attend UCI or go to Cornell University. The combination of great weather and academic rigor brought him to Orange County and UCI, where he is currently studying business economics.
Here, an aspiring pro tennis player can practice more than 300 days a year, and Stege suspected that he would become a better tennis player for it. Here, the issue is almost never the weather, but whether or not he wants to play.
He has experience playing other sports, but nothing stirs his competitive spirit quite like tennis. It’s in a tennis match where opponents face off against each other directly. It’s in a tennis match where the game devolves into a battle of wills, a trial of attrition in which one’s mental toughness is tested along with their athletic ability.
“The length of play becomes a psychological struggle … it’s more like you’re constantly battling yourself, rather than your opponent,” Stege said.
At certain instances in the game, there are what Stege calls “big points.” Those crucial points are break points and set points, among others. Those moments — standing at the line, either serving or returning, wondering whether to exert every last bit of energy to win the point or to wait for a more opportune moment — are when strategy transcends physical ability. There are decisions to be made. You can go for it or play more conservatively, biding time as you strategically make your move. Depending on whether the point is lost or made, the result is exhilaration, or what Stege calls “anger management.”
Stege was faced with a difficult situation last season. He didn’t get as much playing time as he wanted and struggled with the disappointment. An adjustment was made this season, and for the first time in his UCI career, he was partnered with a teammate and played in doubles matches. Chris Kearney and Stege have developed into a formidable tandem. In fact, they’ve been playing so well that the two are considering entering the ATP together after graduation.
Stege has a bright future ahead. He plans on making his pro debut in a tournament in Thailand. After that, he plans on playing in Australia, following the tournaments around the world.
“It’s going to be an experience of a lifetime,” he said. Certainly the business world can wait until Stege is done chasing his dream.