Years from now, when she hopes to be competing for Grand Slam championships, Samantha Crawford will fondly look back on 2012 as the year her tennis career took off.
The 17-year-old from Atlanta won the Junior Girls singles title at the U.S. Open this month, and many believe she soon will be part of the next wave of talented young American players, which includes 19-year-old Sloane Stephens and 20-year-old Christina McHale.
Venus and Serena Williams are going to retire at some point, and Crawford hopes she's one of those who can be part of the new generation of U.S. stars.
"I'm not trying to look that far down the road," said Crawford, who will play her first singles match today against fourth-seeded Anastasia Rodionova in the $50,000 Party Rock Open at Darling Tennis Center. "But I've gotten stronger, and I think everything is growing overall. I have to keep working hard and go for it."
Crawford took up the sport at age 4, encouraged by her mother, Hong, who grew up in China and learned to play while doing her graduate work at the University of Florida. As she grew older and became more proficient, Crawford saw a bright future for herself in tennis.
"I think it's cool that you're out there on your own, and if it's going bad you have to figure out how to turn things around on your own," she said. "There's no one there to help you."
In 2005, Crawford, who had been home-schooled since the third grade, went with her mother to China and spent 10 months in Beijing. Living in a foreign country and learning about a different culture firsthand was an experience few children get to have.
"It was different," Crawford said. "At first, I had trouble with the language, but with my mom being from China and there to help me out, I was able to pick it up, and I was able to manage."
She continued her tennis education while overseas, and when she returned to the United States in 2006, she had a newfound maturity - in her game and her life.
"I think over time I've developed a mental toughness," Crawford said. "I've had a chance to travel to places most kids don't get to see."
This is her first visit to Las Vegas, and, obviously, the teenager isn't going to spend any time in the casinos and nightclubs. Her focus is on tennis, and a good run this week can help her moving forward.
"I hope I can play well," said Crawford, who got her spot in the field as a wild card. "I feel like my game is progressing. I'm definitely more confident since winning juniors at the Open. I got to play in the main (women's singles) draw before the juniors, and that will help me" in Las Vegas.
In that main draw, Crawford battled Great Britain's Laura Robson to a second-set tiebreaker in an opening-round match before coming up short 8-6 and losing, 6-3, 7-6.
Crawford said she had no pressure when the junior girls tournament began at Flushing Meadows, and that might have contributed to her winning.
"I came in with no expectations," she said. "I found a way to work my way through some very tough matches. So it was very gratifying to win. There were a lot of very talented girls who were playing, and it definitely has given my confidence a big boost."
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.