Rough Times

by: Steve Tignor | March 26, 2013

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Earlier this year, after her semifinal run at the Australian Open, I wrote that then-teenage star Sloane Stephens seemed to have a precocious knack for saying the right thing and steering clear of controversy.

After her fourth-round win there, she was asked whether the unholy howls of her opponent, Bojana Jovanovski, had distracted her. Heck no, Sloane said. “I didn’t even think about it, not even once.”

Well, she must have held a grudge against Victoria Azarenka, the woman who had walked off court for 10 minutes before she served to stay in the semifinals, right? Not at all. “I love Vika,” a smiling Stephens said of Azarenka, a player that Sloane’s own coach would later accuse of “cheating within the rules.”

But when I heard Stephens’ statements after her loss to Agniezska Radwanska in Miami on Monday, I had to reassess her public-relations skills. After being reminded of her recent run of poor form—“you’ve lost five of seven”—Sloane was asked what had gone wrong since Melbourne.

“I mean, just a rough time,” she said. “I don’t know. There’s no specific thing that I’d say has happened or is not happening, but I don’t think it really matters. I’m No. 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I would probably still be Top 30. I’m really not too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.”

That, we can safely say, is not the right thing for an athlete to say, to the media or anyone else. So much so that a reporter in the press conference gave Stephens a chance to take it back.

“But you want to win, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Stephens said. You can feel the eye-roll through the transcript.

The word itself can’t capture it, but I’m guessing Sloane delivered that “obviously” with a mix of exasperation and sarcasm. It has been, as Stephens says, a rough time, and Monday had started with so much promise, only to end in total frustration. Stephens cruised through the first set against the world No. 4, but by the middle of the third she had lost 17 points in a row and resorted to mock-clapping after her own mistakes.

If you take Stephens’s words about not caring whether she wins or loses at face value, they fit in with another question I’ve had about her: Is she desperate to win, the way the top players always are? Or is she happy to be a personality as well? In any mention of Stephens, her off-court charm and quotability get equal billing with her Grand Slam potential as a player.

Put it all together and Stephens’ marketing future can seem as important as her playing future. The USTA badly wants her to succeed. The press does as well; a spring issue of California’s Inside Tennis magazine featured Stephens on the cover, with the word “Sensation” splashed in front of her. The sponsors are on the case as well. There’s hope that with Stephens wearing its clothes, Under Armour can raise its profile significantly. If the young girls crowding around to watch Sloane practice at Indian Wells two weeks ago are any indication, the company has a reason to be optimistic. Many of them said they “had to have” her pink warm-up outfit. As I said, Stephens herself has seemed aware of her marketability in the way she handles the press. After she said “I love Vika” in Australia, she elaborated on her affection by mentioning that “we share the same agent.”

Sometimes young players struggle to live up to their marketing campaigns. In this sense, you might compare Stephens to Bernard Tomic, the young Aussie who has been promoted by IMG as the next big thing since he was 13. Tomic, who went out quickly to Andy Murray, also left Miami this week not looking too concerned about winning or losing. Other times, though, there’s substance beneath the style, reality beneath the hype. The woman who Stephens has been most often compared with is Serena Williams. Few players have been as hyped as the Williams sisters were as teenagers, and few have lived up to that hype as thoroughly as Serena. On Monday, the contrasts between Sloane and Serena were stark. While Sloane jumped out to a lead and then lost belief against Radwanska, a sluggish but ultimately determined Serena made one of her customary returns from the dead after being down 6-2, 4-1 to Dominika Cibulkova.

The comparisons between the two are both fair and unfair. Serena is obviously a model for how a champion is supposed to act and play, and she was already a fierce competitor when she was Stephens’ age. Before she was Sloane’s age, in fact—Serena won her first U.S. Open when she was 17. As my colleague Matt Cronin pointed out yesterday, the young Serena was in many ways the opposite of Sloane—Serena had a better attitude on court, but she was harder on herself when she lost. Most people would say that, if you want to be a winner, Serena’s method is the right one. As we could see on Monday, Stephens still has a lot to learn about tactics, being aggressive, using her game, and not getting down on herself.

At the same time, you can’t blame Sloane Stephens for not being Serena Williams. From the beginning, the Williamses had a self-belief and a Messianic sense of destiny that has never been matched by any player, on either tour, that I’ve ever seen. More important, I think, is that this is also a different era in tennis, an era of older champions and delayed expectations. Two years before Serena won the U.S. Open in 1999 at 17, Martina Hingis did the same thing at 16; in 2004, Maria Sharapova would win Wimbledon at 17. But that’s not how it works these days. Now players like Li Na, Sam Stosur, and Francesca Schiavone win their first majors much later in their careers, and women like Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani take longer to reach the Top 10. Stephens can look at them and believe that she doesn’t have to be in a rush, that aiming long-term is the smart way to go.

That’s part of what I think she was reacting to when she made her post-match comments Monday. I think she was fed up with being asked “what’s wrong?” after every one of her losses since Melbourne. Last week in Indian Wells she told a reporter that she wished the media would, essentially, go away. After she lost there to Radwanska’s sister, Urzsula, a morose Stephens admitted that she was tired of “all the other stuff” that had come with her new fame, that it had been “overwhelming.”

“I just want to be on the court,” she said, “have fun, enjoy myself, play like how I played in Australia, and do what I was doing before all this happened.”

She also gave a sort of prequel to her comments in Miami. “Just struggling,” she said in Indian Wells, “three losses in a row, I’m going to be No. 18 in the world now. Really doesn’t matter. There’s always next week. I have 15 or however many more tournaments. I mean, it’s tough now, but just move on.”

Those words, like the ones in Miami, sound pretty downbeat, as if she doesn’t see much reason to try as long as her ranking is safely in the Top 30, which it probably will be until the Australian Open next January. But I think we can see from how emotional she gets during matches that Stephens does care. Take out the sour tone, and I found myself agreeing with the content of her comments. She’s right that one or two or three or even five discouraging losses this spring won’t mean anything in terms of what she can accomplish in her career. A few years ago Jelena Jankovic went on a long losing streak that had her contemplating retirement; two seasons later she was No. 1 in the world. (Of course, this is not the ideal road to glory; Donald Young also went on a long losing streak last year, and he’s No. 191 in the world.)

Is it more important that Stephens, at 20, has lost five of seven matches, or that at this stage she’s been to the semifinals of a Grand Slam, beaten Serena Williams, taken a set from Aga Radwanska, and reached No. 16 in the world? I think it’s the latter. Sloane shouldn’t have said what she said, and she’d be better off not thinking it, either—I can’t imagine Serena or Maria or Steffi ever saying that they “weren’t too concerned about winning” in any context. She needs to do what all of them did and learn to maximize her obvious gifts as a player.

But Stephens is right to downplay the week-to-week results. Whatever happens to her in Miami, or this spring, her forehand and her feet, her power and speed, will still be there. Her potential isn’t going anywhere.

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