It must be pretty weird to be Sloane Stephens right now.
For the second time this year, Sloane Stephens is the last American left at a Grand Slam. At the Australian Open, she beat Serena Williams to make the semifinals. Now at Wimbledon, Serena Williams has picked her as one of the favorites for the title.
That’s a pretty crazy position for anyone to be in, let alone a 20-year-old who’s never even been in a WTA final.
You can call it hype, you can call it luck, you can call it a fluke. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. She doesn’t care. The truth is that it’s hard to say she didn’t earn it fair and square.
Sloane Stephens is ranked No. 17 in the world right now, and she’ll be much higher after this fortnight. In fact, if she beats Marion Bartoli on Tuesday to make it to the Wimbledon semifinals, she will officially be in the Top 10.
Sloane is only 23-13 on the year. 12 of those wins have come at Grand Slams.
On the regular old boring WTA Tour, she has been pretty abysmal. After making the quarterfinals and semifinals of her first two WTA tournaments in 2013, she has only been back to one more quarterfinal, and that was at a teeny tiny clay court tournament in Brussels. She hasn’t just been in a slump, she’s been in a slumber.
But she woke up in time for the Grand Slams. In fact, in her very short career, all of her biggest and shiniest moments have come in Majors.
Sloane has made the third round in all but one Grand Slam since the 2011 U.S. Open. That’s every slam she’s played since turning 19 years old. In four of those slams, she’s made (at least) the fourth round. What’s even more impressive is the opponents she’s lost to. Since her second Grand Slam ever, her losses have come to Ana Ivanovic (US Open 2011 and 2012), Svetlana Kuznetsova (Australian Open 2012), Samantha Stosur (French Open 2012), Sabine Lisicki (Wimbledon 2012), Victoria Azarenka (Australian Open 2013), and Maria Sharapova (French Open 2013).
That means the only non-slam winner she has lost to at a slam in nearly two years is Sabine Lisicki at Wimbledon last year. And, as we learned today, that is nothing to hang your head about.
Sloane Stephens shows up on the big stages. She beats the players she is supposed to beat. That’s certainly a good start.
Right now I’m not sure if there’s anyone in tennis quite as divisive as the 20-year-old American.
Okay, perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but everything said about Stephens these days tends to be.
If you eavesdrop on tennis conversations or read the papers, Sloane seems to fall into two categories: The next Williams Sister or the next Melanie Oudin. There seems to be very little middle ground.
As it often happens, the middle ground is likely where Sloane Stephens will fall.
Like many people before her, Sloane is a victim of her own success. (If there is even such a thing. I hate the phrase.) She’s done well on the big stages, and the big stages happen to be where the media is. We (the tennis crazies who stream matches at 2:00 a.m.) have seen her failures, her slumps, her missteps. The general public has not. They saw her make the Australian Open semifinals, beating Serena Williams along the way. They saw her get to the Wimbledon quarterfinals today. They have seen her be a star and shine.
She impressed them with her game, with her personality, with her wins. It was not a wild card that introduced her to the general public. It was her tennis. She has earned the adoration fair and square. In that case, the Rah Rah American Media is right.
But the skeptics have some ground to stand on, too. As we’ve learned before, it’s good to exercise caution with that praise. Her draws have been generous. Her game does not necessarily seem versatile enough to dominate be a top 5 mainstay. Her attitude is often, well, confusing. She’s commercial, but she’s distant. She cares, but sometimes she seems like she doesn’t. She says things, but they’re not always the things she should be saying.
She’s kind of, like, confusing, you guys.
Sloane wasn’t born and bred to be a tennis champion, the way the Williams or Sharapova or Nadal were. She didn’t grow up with a racket in her hand and with a parent as her coach.
It was her stepdad that introduced her to tennis when she was nine. She saw him playing and starting hitting with him at the club. She caught on.
She was the daughter of two athletes. Her mother was a champion swimmer and her father was a star NFL running back. She was an athletic kid with great genes and killer hand-eye coordination. She picked up the sport quickly. By the time she was 11, she had moved to train at the Evert Academy. When she was 12, she became homeschooled so she could travel and focus on tennis full-time.
From an interview in 2009:
“I wasn’t destined for tennis or anything,” said Stephens, who is home-schooled. “I just lived across the street from a country club, and I didn’t really play any other sports. My stepdad played there, so I just kind of went over there one day and started playing.
“I started late, but it doesn’t matter if you start late. It just matters what you do with your time.”
Stephens knew tennis was for her shortly after trying it out at a country club in her then-hometown of Fresno, Calif., and she was playing in her first tournament there within the year.
“I was pretty good,” Stephens said. “I was athletic, and I had good coordination and things like that, so it wasn’t like I was ever bad. It didn’t take me that long before I knew I could do this.”
Sloane Stephens has also known a lot of tragedy for someone so young.
In 2006, according to the The New York Times, she embarked on a phone relationship with her birth father, John Stephens. Stephens had been a star running back for the New England Patriots, but his addiction issues had kept him out of his life. He found out he had a degenerative bone disease and was going to die, and reached out to get to know Sloane.
In 2007, her stepfather (who had raised her) died of cancer.
In 2009, John Stephens died suddenly in a car crash, a few days before she was supposed to play at the U.S. Open in the junior tournament. Though she had only met him in person a few times, the two had talked on the phone often.
After his death, she found out–by searching on the internet–that he had plead guilty for a rape charge early in his twenties, and had another current rape charge pending.
Through all of the loss, she turned to tennis.
You might have heard that Sloane Stephens got into a bit of a media firestorm this year when she brought up negative things about Serena Williams to a ESPN reporter, not expecting that they would be printed.
“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?”
Those remarks exposed a side of Sloane that the mainstream media had not seen much of. Mainly, it showed that she was still very young, very naive, and very sensitive. Sloane comes off as a blase, sarcastic cool, no-care-in-the-world type of girl, but that’s really not the case.
Sloane acted mad at the media for creating the “narrative” (to use a buzzword) that Serena was her mentor. In fact, Sloane had helped to charge that narrative herself. I sat down with her and talked after the Miami tournament in 2012, and she told me how Serena lived close to her, how they texted all the time, and how nice she was.
Sloane also talked to me (in an interview that unfortunately isn’t online anymore, so you’ll have to trust me) about how she didn’t have any close friends on the WTA because she wasn’t good at separating competition and friendship. She said it was harder for girls as a whole to do that because they were just too emotional.
Sloane also talked that day about how she refused to set any goals for herself. She rarely looked at the ranking. She never looked at a draw.
She is not a girl who focuses on the future. She tries to stay in the present.
As she’s learned in the past year time and time again, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Sloane has impressed me at Wimbledon this year. The way she has pulled herself back up after her post-Australian Open freefall is praise-worthy, as is the way she keeps fighting in matches even when she’s not playing her best tennis.
In fact, she has not played her best tennis this Wimbledon at all. And yet here she is in the quarterfinals.
Her pure athleticism, the thing that made the sport come so effortlessly to her when she was nine, is still her best asset. It allows her to be patient, to wait out her opponent’s hot streaks, and to still have the legs under her to fight in the third set. It allows her to chase down balls, to turn defense into offense, and to create her own pace of play.
There’s nothing about her game that’s particularly flashy, but there’s no glaring weakness either. She doesn’t overflow with grit or passion or really anything at all when she’s playing, but her steadiness allows her to stay in the game. Her lack of emotion on court at this stage is a strength.
In fact, she gets perplexed when she sees emotion from others. From The New York Times:
Before Sloane Stephens could walk onto Court 18 for her fourth-round match against Monica Puig of Puerto Rico, she had to wait for the match between Kirsten Flipkens and Flavia Pennetta to finish, which ended with Flipkens sinking to the grass in joy when she won.
“I saw Flipkens, she fell to the ground today,” Stephens said. “You would have thought she just won Wimbledon.”
Kirsten Flipkens is a 27-year-old Belgian who had just made her first Grand Slam quarterfinal. A year ago, she was ranked outside the top 200 and playing a 25K ITF event instead of Wimbledon.
We say that Stephens has known bad dark days on the tennis court, but that’s just in the last few months. It’s nothing compared to what Flipkens has pulled herself out of in her career.
There’s a perspective there from Sloane that is missing. Perhaps in the day-to-day grind of the tennis world storylines, there’s a perspective missing from all of us.
Sloane has now made a Grand Slam semifinal and another (at least) Grand Slam quarterfinal this year. Those are results worth getting excited over.
Sloane has never won a WTA title or been to a WTA final. That’s something worth noting.
Sloane is sensitive but reserved, offensive but defensive, driven but not goal-oriented.
We all want to pinpoint exactly who Sloane Stephens is and exactly what she is going to be. But she’s only 20 years old. She probably hasn’t even figured that out herself yet.