Alexandra Stevenson on tennis comeback trail at 34

tennis_6001
Tennis pro Alexandra Stevenson greets young fans and signs autographs at the Penn Tennis Center in West Philadelphia Tuesday morning, June 30, 2015. Stevenson has her sights set on a comeback in pro tennis after shoulder surgery. (TRACIE VAN AUKEN/ For the Inquirer)

Alexander O'Connor, 12, was wearing a white T-shirt with "PENN TENNIS CAMP" in navy blue lettering across the front, and he fell in among a dozen or so other campers who had gathered at the courts behind Franklin Field on Tuesday, all of them wanting autographs from the once-famous tennis player with the famous absentee father.

Having joined in with the crowd, he turned his back to the player, and in black marker, she scribbled her first name across the nape of his T-shirt. He started to bound away to catch up with his friends before returning with a question.

"Who's the person who signed my shirt?"

It has been 16 years since Alexandra Stevenson first contemplated the core of that question. She was 18 then, advancing to the semifinals of Wimbledon as a qualifier while the world learned the tawdry details of her birth. In 1980, Julius Erving had had an affair with a sportswriter named Samantha Stevenson, who was covering the 76ers at the time. Erving was Alexandra's father, and the revelation made her more than just another uplifting underdog story. She was Dr. J's illegitimate daughter.

"I'd always been Alexandra Stevenson, myself," she said. "After Wimbledon, I became somebody else. I just didn't know it."

All these years later, she is still trying to rediscover herself again. She has hired local tennis coach Eric Riley to help her rejuvenate a career sidetracked after she tore the labrum in her right shoulder at Wimbledon in 2003, and she and her mother are in the process of relocating to Philadelphia to make Penn's facilities the training ground for her comeback.

Her goal is to win a Grand Slam event, to make what would be a miraculous march from her current WTA ranking - 432d in the world - into the top 10. Riley, who has coached Lisa Raymond and Zina Garrison, insists that Stevenson can accomplish it, that with the right training she has a decade of elite tennis left in her. It would be the best kind of sports story if she were to pull it off, a remarkable summoning of patience and sheer guts. It would give Stevenson her career, and her identity, back.

At her lowest points, she had neither. The torn labrum and the subsequent surgery, in 2004, had robbed her of her power, of the intimidating serve and ground strokes that set her on that magical run in 1999 and that lifted her to No. 18 in the WTA rankings in 2002. She tried various therapies. None seemed to return the strength to her arm. She consulted several physical therapists. A doctor in Germany zapped Stevenson's shoulder with radiation. Her mother, on the advice of an expert in baseball pitching, designed a rehabilitation program that called for her to retire from a match as soon as her arm began to tire. Her sponsors, including Nike, left her. Her ranking plummeted, even as her shoulder slowly recovered.

All the while, she carried the burden of being known first and foremost as Erving's daughter: the tentative glances from passersby, the hey-I-know-yous from TSA agents before she'd board flights, the lack of a relationship with him until 2008, when she and her mother called him in a last-ditch effort to solicit his help with her career. For five years, they stayed in contact - ESPN trumpeting the connection on Outside the Lines. But Stevenson said that she and Erving haven't spoken since the 2013 NBA All-Star Game, when she watched pro basketball players and Hollywood actors "turn into little boys" around him, and only then did she begin to understand the sanctified image he was still trying to protect.

"He has his own family," she said. "That's what he told me. But I have an athlete's royal pedigree. If he gave me one thing, he gave me an athlete's pedigree."

You can see it in her 6-foot-1 frame, and in her arms, long and thick as hawsers. Her shoulder is fine. Her serve can approach 130 miles an hour. Without a top-tier coach, Stevenson has been toiling on the Challenger tour, the tennis equivalent of double-A baseball. But she reached out to Riley two weeks ago to ask him to coach her, and she will stay in Philadelphia for a week, working with him until she departs for northern California and three Pro Circuit events that could serve as a gateway to a wild-card berth in this year's U.S. Open - still going at age 34, her famous father somewhere else.

"A lot of players wake up and just can't do it anymore," Riley said. "I have a player here who has the ability to do it, and she still has the fire to do it."

The campers were gone by now, and as Stevenson chatted with Riley after hitting with a couple of college players he coaches, she glanced down at his legs and said, "Nice socks." One of Riley's clients had bought him a special pair for him, and they were indeed unusual - a vessel that would allow Riley to acknowledge Stevenson's past and, at the same time, treat it with some levity. They were black and came halfway up his calves, and each depicted an image of Erving from his time with the ABA's New York Nets: palming a two-toned basketball, preparing to throw down a dunk, his hair set in that perfect Afro.

Stevenson looked again at the socks. There was no hint that she recognized her father's image, and she said something that was at once sincere and shocking and, in the most profound way possible, completely true.

"I don't even know who that is."

msielski@phillynews.com

@MikeSielski