"They want another Serena"
THERE'S SOMETHING incongruous about this room in the concrete bowels of the Crandon Park Tennis Center, all dingy carpet and fluorescent lights and uncomfortable banquet chairs, where the top athletes at Miami's Sony Open come to meet the media, vanishing into a windowless labyrinth after playing matches under cloudless March skies, where $18-a-flute Veuve Clicquot and sushi counts as stadium food.
Sloane Stephens, the recently anointed future of American tennis, takes a seat at the front of the room, careful not to scrape her knee on a raw piece of wood under the table. Her inquisitors pepper the 20-year-old with questions about her fourth-round loss to Agnieszka Radwanska, the tournament's fourth seed and defending champion. Stephens considers her mint-color nails and lobs back defensive nonanswers.
A few hours earlier, it appeared this news conference would go much differently. In the first set, Stephens was calm, using her full-bodied power forehand to hit winner after winner. As the balls zoomed past, you could see Radwanska, one of the game's most brilliant tacticians, growing dismayed. Stephens won the set 6-4. Then something changed. Stephens' monster swing, unbeatable when she was landing shots, started to look unwieldy and self-defeating. Radwanska disposed of her 6-0 in the third set, in about the same amount of time it takes to shuffle an estranged relative off the phone at Christmas.
Now a new narrative about Stephens is forming at the presser: one of a promising young athlete struggling under the weight of the expectations game.
"Has it been harder for you in professional tennis since beating Serena at the Australian Open?" asks one reporter. "You've just done the greatest thing you can possibly do. Has the next step been harder for you than you thought it was going to be?"
Stephens scrunches up her face as though the very words taste bad. "No. I mean … "
"What's happening differently with these matches? You've lost four out of the last seven. What's different than what was happening at the Australian that worked so well?"
"I mean, it's just a rough time. I don't know," she shoots back, visibly irritated. "There's not -- there's no specific thing that I'd say has happened or is not happening, but I don't think it really matters." She has done the math: "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."
The writer is aghast at her defensiveness. "But you want to win, obviously ... " he says. She rolls her eyes at him. "Obviously."
Some read it as a moment of bratty adolescence. The most offended said it "bordered on unprofessional." At the very least, it was a sharp contrast from her mood just eight weeks earlier, when she arrived at the Australian Open with her winning mix of girlish charm -- bright-eyed, with teeth perfect enough to sell Orbit gum -- and the kind of talent that lifts grown men out of their stadium seats in applause. On Jan. 23, she achieved the unthinkable: She beat Serena Williams, the best in the world, in a quarterfinal upset. Williams was hobbled by a rolled ankle and back spasms, but that didn't change the historic nature of what Stephens had done. She was the first American younger than Williams to best her -- ever. "Oh my goodness, I don't even know," Stephens told her postmatch interviewer, looking delighted, even giggling, when asked how it felt to beat the player whose poster she had on her bedroom wall growing up. "I think I'll put [up] a poster of myself now."
Stephens entered Australia a promising young athlete; she left as Williams' heir apparent. There was the segment on ABC World News, the appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, countless stories written about what it felt like to beat the best -- all featuring the bubbly, gracious, confident young player. First it was exhilarating; soon it became exhausting. She had a few early-round losses in Dubai and at Indian Wells. Two months after returning from Melbourne, as Stephens walked into her second-round match in Miami against an unseeded Olga Govortsova, someone shouted, "Hey, Sloane, great job beating Serena last time!" As she tried to loosen up and focus on her match, fans in the crowd suddenly turned into supportive parents, encouraging, nudging, offering advice from the stands. "Come on, Sloane, let's get this done!" "Let it out, Sloane!" A day later, she went to hit balls on the practice court and found dozens of fans lining the fence, ready to chase her with felt balls and Sharpies, so many that she nearly had to break into a run to avoid the crush.
Stephens signed up for this. She knew what she was getting into. But that doesn't mean she has to take kindly to the suggestion that beating Williams was "the best thing you could possibly do." Winning a quarterfinal match over an injured player -- even one of the best to ever pick up a racket -- was never the goal. Neither was being "the next Serena," as she's so often called. At best, it's a well-meaning but uncreative comparison, a collective failure of imagination that refuses to let Sloane be Sloane. At worst, it's creating absurd expectations and hurting her game.
I'M TRYING TO keep all of this in mind when I meet Stephens two days after her loss to Radwanska. It's a bright, chilly late-March day at the Frank Veltri Tennis Center courts in Plantation, Fla., and she's sitting on a bench after practice, staring straight ahead while her coach leans in to talk. She stays over there for long enough that I begin to worry she'll never come over to where I am, but she finally does, offering me a glum greeting and staring at her iPhone as we walk over to meet her mom. We go to a little pizza place near the courts, the kind with lacquered tables and flat-screen TVs showing sports recaps, and make small talk about the new challenges in her career.
"I'm annoyed. I'm over it," she says of all the Serena comparisons. "I've always said Kim Clijsters is my favorite player, so it's kind of weird." She attributes the media hype over her relationship to the star to "just being African-American and them wanting to link to something." Then she begins to tell the story of when she was 12 and first saw Serena play. Her mom took Sloane, her younger brother, Shawn, and her stepdad to the Fed Cup in Delray Beach, Fla., and the family waited around all day for the Williams sisters to sign their posters.
Stephens' mom, Sybil, is sitting next to her, looking almost like her sister -- the same classic beauty, both of them in shades of gray athletic wear -- and gives her daughter a look of incredulity. "Are you really telling this story?"
"Yes!" Sloane says. "The people need to know! I waited all day. They walked by three times and never signed our posters." She pauses to ask whether she ever hung it in her room. Her mom nods. Sloane continues: "I hung it up for a while. I was, like, devastated because they didn't sign it, whatever, and then after that I was over it. I found a new player to like because I didn't like them anymore."
To be fair, if there were misconceived notions about the tight relationship between Sloane and Serena, it's in part because Stephens played along. In January Stephens told ESPN, "She's, like, one of my really good friends" and that "everyone thinks she's so mean, but she's, like, the greatest person ever." In reality, their interaction consisted of occasionally warming up together before events and chitchatting in the locker room between matches.
But then Sloane beat Serena in Australia. "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?"
Then there was the alleged subtweet -- a cryptic message posted to Serena's Twitter feed two days after their January match and addressed to no one in particular that said, "I made you." Stephens was sure it was about her, and so were a few of Williams' followers who tweeted back at Serena about "that lil girl" who beat her. "I was like, 'You really don't think I know that that's about me?'" Stephens says.
(The two did interact at April's Fed Cup, where they both competed for the U.S. team. Williams' agent did not respond to requests for comment.)
There were signs, for those looking closely enough, that the two were always competitors first, friends a distant second. "I would need a better definition of the word 'mentor,'" Williams told reporters who asked about their relationship shortly before their match at the Australian Open. "It's hard to be a real mentor when you're still in competition."
"For the first 16 years of my life, she said one word to me and was never involved in my tennis whatsoever," says Stephens. "I really don't think it's that big of a deal that she's not involved now. If you mentor someone, 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, so therefore … "
I offer: "They want the next great American player."
Stephens says: "They want another Serena."
ONE OF THE strangest things about the forced parallels between the two players is that Stephens' life story needs no embellishment to make it compelling. Stephens grew up across the street from a country club in Plantation, Fla., the daughter of two gifted athletes. Sybil was the best swimmer in Boston University's history and in 1988 became the first black woman to earn first-team All-America honors in the sport; Sloane's father, John Stephens, was a first-round draft pick of the Patriots and the NFL offensive rookie of the year in 1988. Her parents split up when she was a baby, and her father disappeared from her life. In her earliest years, while her mom was in grad school studying education, Stephens spent a lot of time with her grandfather, who grew up poor in Trinidad, then won a scholarship to Howard University and became a doctor in the United States. Sybil remarried in 1997, and she and her new husband, Sheldon Farrell, raised Sloane. It was after watching her stepdad play matches at the club that Sloane first picked up a racket.
Soon the family was following the path that transforms young players into champions: Sybil working from home, Sloane being home-schooled and turning pro at 16, assuming a monomaniacal focus. From an early age, Sloane combined a very adult perseverance with childlike ebullience, flipping the tragic tennis prodigy stereotype on its head.
"She's just full of life and happy every day," Sybil says of her daughter's personality, a trait she attributes to Sloane's father. "She's got his charisma; it's kind of bizarre. Talk about inheritance: She's just like the guy, and she didn't meet him until she was 13."
That year, her father called Sybil to tell her he had degenerative bone disease and wanted to get to know his daughter before it was too late. Sloane wasn't looking for a new dad; her stepfather, the only father she had ever known, was in the grips of a years-long battle with cancer. But Sloane and John hit it off immediately, talking on the phone regularly and eventually spending a day in Louisiana together for Sloane to meet her paternal grandmother and half siblings, with Sybil's blessing.
After her stepdad died in 2007, Sloane took time off from tennis, but she returned to the courts within a couple of months. Two years later, just before she was scheduled to compete in the junior division of the U.S. Open, she learned that John Stephens had been killed in a single-car accident. Sloane won her first match, flew to Louisiana the next day to attend the funeral and returned in time to win again. While searching the Internet for stories about her dad's death, Sloane learned why he hadn't been in touch all those years. In 1994 he'd been arrested twice -- once on a weapons charge and once on a rape charge; he served probation for both. There was also a second rape charge, this one from 2009, which was pending when he died.
Sybil says she left John Stephens as a result of the 1994 arrests, cutting off all contact and not reading any news about him or telling her children about his criminal record. She had allowed Sloane to spend time with her father all those years later -- after consulting with mutual friends who assured her he had changed -- because she didn't want to prevent Sloane from meeting him before he died. "I was just as surprised as Sloane to discover what had happened," she says of his 2009 arrest. "When he passed away, it really became evident that he still had some serious issues." Of her daughter's feelings about Stephens now, she says: "In a sense, I think she's moved on, which is really good, but I think those questions will linger for her lifetime because she never got a chance to say: 'Dad, what's up with this?'"
After losing both father figures, Sybil says, Sloane needs a mom more than ever. So she drives her daughter to tennis practice, leaves the coaching to the coaches and offers a sympathetic ear when her daughter needs it. "I try to be more of her friend and listen to her issues and point her in the right direction and guide her because this is a cruel, cruel world; professional sports is really challenging," Sybil says. "I try to point her in the right direction every single day."
While waiting for her pizza, Stephens talks about the music she's been listening to lately. "Oh -- Shania Twain! Huh, Mom?" she says.
"Old-school Shania Twain," her mom clarifies.
"'You're Still the One,'" Sloane says, and the two of them begin singing another Twain hit. "From this moment," they belt in mock alto.
Then it's just Sloane: "I have been blessed, I live only … "
Her mom picks it up: "For your happiness! And there's nothing, I wouldn't do … "
"Okay, we're done," Sloane says.
But Sybil keeps going, leaning in to throw her arm around Sloane's shoulder and egging her on in the way in which moms seem to sometimes delight in provoking their daughters. "From this moment -- "
Sloane shrugs her off with a familiar flash of that adolescent irritation. "We're done, stop!" Her mom just smiles and rubs her daughter's back. "Okay. Sorry, dear."
EVEN AFTER EVERYTHING she's gone through in her short career, Stephens considers the past few months the most challenging professional moment she's faced so far. "I think there's a lot more stress and things to do and a lot more pressure and expectations," she says.
The road to obscurity in tennis is paved with high expectations of well-meaning fans: Ask Donald Young, a once-promising player who later earned the inauspicious distinction of owning the fourth-longest losing streak in the Open era. Or ask any of the other players who reached such dizzying heights that anything that came after could only be a disappointment: Virginia Ruzici, the 1978 French Open winner who made it past the quarterfinals in a grand slam only once more in her career, or Anastasia Myskina, who peaked in 2004 with a French Open win before slipping out of the top 10 the following year and taking an indefinite leave of absence from the sport at age 26.
The knowledge that so many other rising stars haven't "made it" is pressure enough, even without the nearly insurmountable expectations and complications that come with being called the next Serena Williams. Still, Sloane remains focused, and her talent remains undeniable. With a serve that hits 115 mph, the agility to cover the entire court and one of the most powerful forehands in the women's game, she has all the tools she needs to become a dominant force on the tour.
As she picks at the peppers on her slice of pizza, I ask Stephens about where she wants to go from here. These are her career goals, as she defines them: "However good I can be, I hope I go there. I obviously want to win a grand slam, but whatever I do, however long I play, I hope I sustain a really long career, a healthy one, just a pretty consistent career." And, she repeats, "I obviously want to win a grand slam."