Mentors Imagined and All Too Real

Wednesday, May 08, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

On Friday I wrote that if you like your tennis tournaments to come with a little sound and fury, this week was probably going to be a disappointment after the blue-court brouhaha at the Madrid Masters in 2012. Obviously, I wrote too soon. Since then, we’ve had plenty of sound and plenty of fury, from Sloane Stephens, John Tomic, Novak Djokovic, and the viciously vociferous tennis fans of Madrid, who may or may not have been infiltrated by a pack of vacationing Parisians.

Pete Bodo has the Djokovic story covered here; I’ll take the other two, starting on the lighter side.

***** 

Sloane Stephens, as you surely know, has accused Serena Williams of...not being very nice to her. Stephens had this to say to ESPN the Magazine about the woman she beat at the Australian Open:

“She’s not said one word to me, not spoken to me, not said hi, not looked my way, not been in the same room with me since I played her in Australia,” Stephens says emphatically. “And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter.”

Her mom tries to slow her down, but Sloane is insistent. “Like, seriously! People should know. They think she’s so friendly and she’s so this and she’s so that — no, that’s not reality! You don’t unfollow someone on Twitter, delete them off of BlackBerry Messenger. I mean, what for? Why?”

The 20-year-old goes on to claim that the (long known to be inaccurate) stories about Serena being her mentor were indeed inaccurate. “If you mentor someone," Sloane says, "that means you speak to them, that means you help them, that means you know about their life, that means you care about them. Are any of those things true at this moment? No...”

For good measure, Stephens also says that many years ago the Williams sisters didn’t sign an autograph for her, that Serena’s post-Australian tweet “I made you,” was directed at her, and that Sloane's favorite player all along was Kim Clijsters, anyway. All of which, Stephens concludes, is “kind of weird.”

For anyone who has been following—or at least not unfollowing—this story, these words will also seem kind of weird, as well as ironic. At the U.S. Open last year, Stephens said, of Serena, “Whenever we see each other, we’re laughing and giggling. I feel like I knew her in my past life or something.” Sloane continued in that vein at the Australian Open in January:  “She’s so sweet...I love her. Obviously she’s been a really great influence in my tennis year [sic] career.”

Yesterday Stephens tweeted that she had learned her lesson, and that she and Serena had spoken and were "good." Whatever the nature and extent of their relationship was over the years—Serena herself said in Australia that she had "never really given her advice”—it’s clear that Sloane was hurt by how Serena reacted after their Aussie match.

Hopefully the lesson Sloane learned is that Serena, no matter what her achievements are, is still a competitor who hates to lose any match, to anyone. Sloane says she thinks everyone believes Serena is so “friendly,” but I’d say more people think of her first, and rightfully, as a fearsomely great athlete. As Serena said in Melbourne, “It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition. I’m here to compete and do the best I can.” Frankly, the idea that Serena would take her loss to Sloane personally isn’t a surprise—she’s been doing something similar with Maria Sharapova for close to 10 years. 

Of course, Sloane isn't Maria. There’s a racial element to this story, and that’s part of what led to the belief that Serena had been a mentor to her fellow African-American. At the U.S. Open last year, I remember being struck by the number of questions Sloane received about Serena. Here's what she was asked, in the course of just three press conferences:

“Serena has talked a lot about how great of a player you are. What have you gotten from [that] relationship?”

“Has Serena given you any advice about handling the Open or New York, to deal with the craziness of this Slam?

“If she’s not discussing actual technical things with you regarding tennis, does she discuss the way to handle the tour?”

“Becoming friends with Serena, does that mean she tells you things about how to play the game and win points and maybe beat her?”

“Serena said she’d been talking to you, giving you some advice. What do you think she’ll tell you [after this match]?

This was Sloane's answer to that last question: “I don’t think she watched [my match]. It was on Tennis Channel tonight. There’s no Tennis Channel in New York hotel rooms for some reason."

The reporter wasn’t convinced, suggesting that, “Maybe she’s in the players' lounge watching."

To which Sloane gave the only response anyone could possibly give to that statement:

“I doubt it.”

In other words, the press was going to get its Serena-Sloane, African-American mentor-student narrative one way or another (I also compared the two of them during the Aussie Open). Sloane, while lodging a few protests, obliged. 

I’ve wondered more than once this year whether Stephens does what she accuses Serena of doing: i.e., putting on a smiling front for the press and saying all the right things. Now she might be more willing to say things that the press doesn’t want to hear. 

For example, Serena wasn’t the only colleague whose praises Sloane sang in Australia. When she was asked, after her semifinal loss to Victoria Azarenka, what she thought of her opponent and her infamous timeout, Stephens smiled and assured us, “I love Vika.”

Who knows, maybe we'll learn more about what Sloane really thinks of a few other players in the coming months.

*****

Like Sloane Stephens, it has been mostly downhill for Bernard Tomic since the Australian swing. After winning his first career title, in Brisbane, he’s reached just one quarterfinal. Worse, he has played with his usual intermittent indifference. The 20-year-old Bernie, it seemed, was still a mystery, a young man who marched to the beat of his own rhythmless drummer.  

This weekend, though, we learned a lot more about what has likely been troubling Tomic. His father, John, has always been a notorious figure, and the son had even tried to have him removed from the stands during his matches in the past. Still, it came as a shock to me to hear that John had bloodied Bernard with a punch and been arrested for knocking his hitting partner out cold with a head-butt. It suddenly became much easier to understand why Tomic has had his struggles on court. He’s clearly had his share of them off it as well.

John Tomic has, rightly, been barred from ATP and ITF events. This is bad news for Bernard the son, but it may not be so bad for Bernard the player. You would assume that he would look to someone else for coaching, and that the distance from his dad would help clear his head. 

I hope so. But I also remember the speech that Tomic gave after his win in Brisbane. He dedicated the title to his father, who was nearly in tears in the stands. It seemed to me to be a message to the officials at Tennis Australia, the ones whom John and Bernie have tangled with so often in the past. The younger Tomic was pledging his loyalty not to his country, but to his father and their immigrant family.

Since then things have gone in the opposite direction for Tomic. He has come back into the Tennis Australia fold, and been distanced from his father. Putting an end to that shuttling between family and country would be a good first step for him. Tennis fans everywhere should hope that Bernie, who is a pleasure to watch when he’s at his best and feeling good, lands in a safe place.

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