They Said What? Under Pressure

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“She (Sloane Stephens) was glad it (her breakthrough tournament) happened in Australia. . . And she was saying the other day that she was looking forward to going to Europe so that she was kind of -- the American press corps wasn't following her around as much and things like that and she can kind of just operate under the radar.”Melanie Oudin, on Stephens’ current slump.

It’s never fun to see a young player struggle with the pressure created by overnight success. But that’s just what’s been happening to Sloane Stephens, who toppled Serena Williams and made it all the way to the semifinals of the Australian Open. Once she became a sensation, the sensations became, well, unsettling.

Since that breakout tournament, Stephens has struggled. She lost her opening-round match in three of her next five tournaments (to players ranked as low as No. 113 Bethanie Mattek-Sands) and hasn’t won back-to-back matches since Oz (discounting the walkover she received in Miami over Venus Williams). More telling, she’s made some odd—and telling—remarks about her own situation.

In Miami, after Stephens lost to defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska in three sets, she said:

“I'm No. 16 in the world. I can lose in the first round the next two months and I probably would still be Top 30. I’m not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don’t think.”

If there seemed to be a note of defiance—or is it denial—in that, it vanished about a week later, after she got just two games off Mattek-Sands at Charleston. There, she told reporters:

“I was disappointed with the way I was playing, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible.’ I really love clay, so to get out and not be able to play so well is definitely disappointing. The last three months have definitely been super-overwhelming and definitely really, really tough.”

It’s probably a good thing that after a few weeks of trying to play it cool, Stephens realized—or perhaps she knew it all along, but wouldn’t admit to it—that she’s in a bit over her head. It’s happened before, and other players have navigated those shoals. It’s almost certain that she will too. But that bit in the Oudin quote about Stephens wanting to “operate under the radar” and out of view of her domestic press suggests that she hasn’t quite figured all of it out—yet.

Great players don’t want to operate under the radar. They want to be in the spotlight. Their response to pressure is to cry out, “Bring it on!” That’s something Stephens will have to understand, and an attitude she’ll have to learn to embrace if she hopes to join the elite.

Perhaps it’s a good time for the 20-year-old to look to Pete Sampras as a role model. The 14-time Grand Slam champion stunned the tennis world when he won the U.S. Open in 1990, at barely 20 years of age. The following year, Sampras lost in the quarterfinals to Jim Courier, then declared in a painfully frank press conference that he felt uncomfortable with the pressure of being defending champ. He was relieved to lose. It was like “a ton of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders.”

A few minutes later, when the comment was related to Courier, he remarked, “There are a lot of guys out there wishing they had that load on their shoulders.” Others chimed in as well, and the incident became the first controversy of Sampras’ career. By the time it played itself out, Sampras came to see how that pressure to which he alluded was an honor, not an impediment. It could be made into an advantage and a motivator. It took him another year to fully mature into the champion he would become once he chose to accept rather than run from the demands of his status. But he got there.

There’s a valuable lesson for any potentially great young player in that. Let’s see if Stephens can ferret it out of her own experience.

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