Touching Bottom?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

You have to feel for Sloane Stephens. She’s been struggling ever since her breakthrough Australian Open, where she upset Serena Williams and scared Victoria Azarenka so badly that Azarenka’s rib—not to mention her throat—locked up.

Stephens hasn’t won consecutive matches since then, and is a mediocre 2-6. After denying that she felt greater pressure to perform following her excellent start to the season—she was 5-2 going into the Australian Open, and a semifinalist at Hobart—Stephens admitted a few weeks ago that her newfound fame has been hard to handle.

You know what some of those veterans of 12-step programs say: You have to hit rock bottom before you can start back up toward the top.

Stephens may have hit rock bottom last weekend as the Fed Cup played out, largely ignored by the media as Rafael Nadal attempted to win his ninth consecutive title in Monte Carlo. Perhaps the paucity of attention was a good thing—certainly for Stephens, if not the winners of the two semifinal ties, Italy and Russia. They’ll meet in the final after recording noteworthy wins over, respectively, the Czech and Slovak Republics.

The United States was not hunting the big prize; it was struggling to remain in the elite World Group, the top level of Fed Cup competition, with the advantage of hosting its tie against a relatively weak Swedish team on an American-friendly hard court in Delray Beach, Fla. Stephens, selected to play alongside Venus and Serena Williams, couldn’t have asked for a more secure, supportive environment. In a welcome vote of confidence, Stephens was selected to play second singles for the U.S. (behind Serena). She would even have the stabilizing influence of team captain Mary Jo Fernandez sitting right beside her on the court.

Cognizant of all that going in, Stephens said: “It should be fun. I'm excited. Obviously I'm from down here (Coral Springs), so a lot my family is gonna come. It'll be my first singles match, so it'll be a little—I'll be a little nervous. But I have a great team behind me and I know they'll be really supportive, so I'm excited.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out as she hoped. The task of kicking off the tie before a home crowd proved to be a bit much, despite the great rankings disparity between WTA No. 16 Stephens and No. 54 Sofia Arvidsson. The Swedish underdog won, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.

Afterward, Stephens said she felt no particular pressure playing the first, tone-setting match; the challenge was more about being called upon to play at home. “It was tough for me to get out and play first. . . I think this is the most pressure and anxiety I've had since Australia. Playing for a team—obviously, I didn't want to let my team down.”

Fernandez re-formulated her strategy after the first day ended 1-1, giving Stephen’s slot in the lineup to Venus, who clinched the tie for the U.S., 3-1, with a nice win over Johanna Larsson.

Well, you can certainly put some of this down to classic Davis/Fed Cup jitters. It’s hard to gauge how any player, great or mediocre, will react to the unique nature of team play in an individual sport, a challenge exacerbated by the fact that, like it or not, you are said and thought to be representing your nation. That can burdensome, inspirational, and often both.

If you’re pulling for Stephens to come out of her swoon, this might be that “rock bottom” moment she may need to experience before she starts to build her game and results back up again. But it’s good to keep in mind that as much as we understand and relate to the potential negative impacts of overnight stardom, history has shown us that players destined for Greatness—with the upper case “G”—tend to see sudden success for the blessing that it is, and react accordingly.

Take Steffi Graf. She made her first Grand Slam semifinal at the 1985 U.S. Open in 1985, and would reach at least the quarterfinals of the next 29 majors (until Wimbledon, 1994). She went 8-3 in the rest of the ’85 season, and made the finals of the first two events she played in 1986, losing to Chris Evert on each occasion.

Or take Sloane’s pal, Serena. She burst through at a major in 1999, with a win at the U.S. Open. She won her next event as well, picking up $900,000 at the Grand Slam Cup by virtue of a win over her sister Venus in the final. In her next 17 majors, Serena faltered before the quarterfinals just once—a fourth-round loss at the Australian Open in her very next Grand Slam event. She was a quick study.

Monica Seles made the semifinals in the very first Grand Slam of her career (Roland Garros, 1989), and after making at least the fourth round at the next two majors, she won her first Grand Slam title when she returned to Paris in 1990. She lost only to quality players late in tournaments from the get-go.

Alright, nobody has said that Sloane Stephens is the next Steffi Graf or Serena Williams. But she needs to know that while all the sympathetic talk about handling pressure and making adjustments to her new status and dealing with the demands of fame may be compassionate and soothing, it doesn’t get her anywhere. And it certainly doesn’t describe a challenge that is either universal or inevitable.

Billie Jean King frequently challenged the classic loser’s sop—“I’ll learn a lot from this loss”—by insisting that losing never taught her jack; she learned from winning. The stark fact is that the greatest of players translated and processed “pressure” as opportunity, and their breakout moments left them with a robust appetite for more success—more, as quickly and easily as they could get it. And they almost always got it, right away, and with a vengeance.

Plenty of terrific players also struggled with pressure (Petra Kvitova, anyone?), but it’s important for Stephens to know that she doesn’t have to embrace the predictable narrative that a screen-writer might cook up. As Boris Becker once told me, when I asked what it was like to serve a key point at Wimbledon (and I’ll have to paraphrase): It’s a beautiful day, the birds are singing and the sky is blue, I am doing something I love in a fantastic place. Why should I feel pressure?

The parade of beautiful days is nearly endless in tennis, but it’s hard to see that blue sky or hear those birds singing if you’re gasping for air, down near rock bottom. The sooner Stephens realizes that it doesn’t have to be that way, the better off she’ll be.

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