"It's hard to be a real mentor when you're still in competition."—Serena Williams, to reporters in Melbourne before her 2013 Australian Open quarterfinal match against Sloane Stephens
At April's United States Fed Cup tie in Delray Beach, Fla., Sloane Stephens, seated on the sideline during Venus Williams' singles match, clutched a cellphone case that featured mock brass knuckles on it. She is surely not shying away now from a fight—a potential war of words, really—as she criticizes Serena Williams in a new ESPN The Magazine story.
In that article by Marin Cogan, Stephens takes the world's No. 1 player to task, despite a couple attempts by her mother, Sybil, to have her halt and consider her word choice. Among the statements that Stephens makes regarding the younger Williams sister in tennis, these have been amplified:
"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. And that should tell everyone something, how she went from saying all these nice things about me to unfollowing me on Twitter." [Her mother tries to interrupt.] "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?"
It's worth noting that Stephens made those comments ahead of the tie in Delray Beach, where she certainly interacted with both Serena and Venus as teammates. And, of course, there are always two sides to a book. Serena's agent, Jill Smoller, didn't respond to requests for comment after Stephens' interview with ESPN, and though she told TENNIS.com she is aware of the 20-year-old's statements, didn't respond to them. Thus Serena's side has yet to be uttered, or written. It will be up to her to treat it as she will, quite likely after her next match in Madrid.
So while the Williams camp remains mum on the matter, others are talking. Tennis journalists, bloggers, USTA leaders, and many more—everyone has a perspective and a lot of words about this exchange, one-sided so far. The fact is that whatever preconceived notions about Serena and Sloane one harbors will color how that observer sees this present dispute. It may yet be that Serena lets her racquet do the talking, much like she did after losing in the French Open's first round in 2012, going on a shopping spree in taking the Wimbledon and U.S. Open crowns, Olympic gold, and the year-end championships. She also seized Olympic and Wimbledon doubles titles with Venus. Failure—and criticism—can be so motivating.
Suffice it to say, Serena doesn't need Sloane. She needs next to no one perhaps, save her sister and the rest of her family. She has proven that time and again.
These comments won't faze Serena. She has encountered far worse in life to date, assailed by more biting criticism, a family murder, injuries, illnesses, and more difficulties. If anything, what the Stephens article in ESPN reveals is something of a petulant younger tennis player, one unaccustomed to the limelight and to the natural friction that comes with trying to befriend a former heroine turned fellow competitor. Sloane Stephens has a 2-7 record on the WTA since defeating Serena at the Australian Open. What appears to be at hand is displaced blame and a distraction in the wake of her own slumping results.
There was this quote, in response to a reporter in a Miami press conference some time after That Upset, and on the heels of one of Stephens' subsequent 2013 defeats: "I mean, it's just a rough time. I don't know. ... I'm 16th in the world. I can lose in the first round for the next two months and probably still be top 30. I'm not really too concerned about winning or losing or any of that, I don't think. My life has changed, yeah, but I wouldn't say I'm in a panic or anything."
Not exactly the words of one with a killer instinct. (Stephens is now ranked No. 17, and lost her opening match in Madrid to Daniela Hantuchova.) She obviously has growing up to do, just as Serena and Venus Williams had to acclimate to the international stage and learn from a few foibles along the way. Hopefully she can adapt, much like they did, and make the most of her talents. But that quote was telling. It may make the difference. A true champion, a Hall of Famer, is one who abhors losing. Can't stand it. If Stephens wants to join that pantheon of pros after the twilight of her career, she will need to take on some of their traits, even if she chooses wisely to discard others.
"Put your big-girl panties on"—this is probably the memo that Stephens needs, one that I was reminded of after first seeing the news that she had sent up Serena in the ESPN interview. It's something that the Washington Post reported education secretary Margaret Spellings, native to the George W. Bush White House, sent to interim press secretary Dana Perino after her boss, Tony Snow, left that perch due to a recurrence of cancer. In so many words, it is high time to grow up and move on. "I'm over it," Stephens told ESPN—but that wasn't the case during the interview.
Got a thought, a tip, or a point to make? Hit me on Twitter @jonscott9.