Today in Charleston, Sloane Stephens lost to Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-4. In both sets she got down early before climbing back and making it close, but she never quite evened things up or got her nose ahead. We’ve been here before. It’s nothing new.
This wasn’t a blow-out, humiliating, nothing-to-take-from-it loss like her 6-1, 6-0 thrashing from Wozniacki in Miami was. There were moments where Stephens hit good forehands, and she kept the match somewhat competitive by fighting back in both sets.
My gripe isn’t so much about the fact that Sloane lost. It’s that, once again, she didn’t seem to really care that she lost.
“I have a lot of tennis to play in the next ten years,” Stephens said. “So I’m just going to enjoy it and have fun even if my ranking drops to 800; I doubt it’d matter that much.”
After this loss, her attitude was very similar.
I feel like, like I said, like I’m 21 now. If I play 10 more years of tennis, until I’m 31, that’s a lot of tennis to be played. I could like, I could win the next Grand Slam or I could win one in six years and that would still be, you know, if I had pretty decent results and I was pretty consistent, I think that would still be pretty good.
But like I said, there’s a lot of tennis to be played and I’m not–like I’m in the Top 20 and I’m still really young and still learning a lot about myself and things like that, so I’m not rushing to try and do anything fabulous.
Ugh. Okay. Deep breaths.
Here’s the thing: Every athlete needs to have perspective. Gosh, every human needs perspective. Without it, we’d all be throwing toddler-like temper tantrums every time we felt a pang of hunger, stubbed our toe, or spilled our beer–er, I mean juice. For tennis players, a loss should not be the end of the world and send them hiding under the covers for days. That doesn’t do anyone any good. But they also have to care.
You see, the dirty truth is, sports are actually a silly thing. I’m a huge sports nut, but occasionally I stop and wonder why I get so invested (personally and professionally) in these games. I just can’t help it–I care about sports, as do millions of other people. That’s why sports are so popular. But if you take out the caring factor, well, it all seems a bit meaningless.
So back to Sloane’s press conference. She did not say flat out that she doesn’t care. In fact, she actually said the words, “I want to win.” But everything else about her–her whiny and lazy demeanor on the court, her blasé talk about losing early in tournaments and dropping to No. 800, the fact that she keeps on losing matches outside of Slams that she should be winning, contradicts that. I think she wants to win in the way I want to finish writing this article in the next 10 minutes. It’s my goal, but likely someone is going to stop and talk to me, or I’ll see an interesting article pop up on twitter, or I’ll need to eat a second dinner, and it just won’t happen. And truthfully I won’t really be that bothered, the same way Sloane didn’t seem that bothered today.
Sloane says she wants to win–we all do– but she sure doesn’t seem to care if she loses. That’s an important distinction.
Like I said earlier, everyone needs perspective. But athletes also have to have a sense of urgency. Every great athlete–heck, most “just okay” athletes–need to win. They crave it. It’s why they play the game! If the athlete doesn’t care about winning and losing, then why should we? What’s the whole point of this thing?
Sloane keeps talking about how much time she has left in her career, and I honestly hope that she does play tennis for the next 10 years and that she does win that Grand Slam she so casually talks about. But neither of those things are guaranteed. Far from it. Injuries are rampant in this sport. Styles of play change. Power comes and goes. The new generation takes over. Sports are cruel and time is fleeting. Therefore, as they say, the most important match should always be the next one–or, to be specific for Sloane, the one she’s playing at the time. There’s a time for perspective, and then there’s a time to just compete.
Today, Sloane’s lack of effort was magnified by the play of two of her countrywomen. Madison Keys–who is two years younger than Sloane–was down 6-1, 5-1 to Peng before fighting all the way back only to lose the match in a third-set tiebreaker. Afterwards, a clearly disappointed Keys told the press that the only positive was, “At least no one can say I didn’t try.”
Then, Venus Williams, who is fighting a bug here in Charleston (on top of her Sjogren’s Syndrome and the fact that she is 33 years old), battled back from a break down in both sets to take out Chanelle Scheepers 7-5, 7-5.
In press, Venus said that she wasn’t born with competitive fire, but that she learned it during her career. When Courtney Nguyen asked her how she had acquired it, she explained:
Have you seen the “Wizard of Oz,” the lion [sic]? He didn’t have a heart, but he wanted it. So he got it. He did what it took.
So you have to recognize, hey, I got this issue. Let me fix it. You can’t just ignore it. So I think for me it was a learned thing.
I then followed up by asking Venus what her advice would be for the younger players who don’t have that competitive spirit yet. (I did not name names, but I was in the middle of writing this piece, so you know what my mind-frame was.) Here’s what she said:
I think the main advice is just don’t make any excuses. You know, don’t make any excuses for yourself. If you didn’t win the match, guess what, it’s you on the court. So figure it out.
So whatever it takes to win, obviously, in a fair way, you gotta do that. So I think a lot of times people aren’t [responsible] for their own actions, and in sport you want to be the best you have to be.
Sloane Stephens still has time to sort things out. She still has time to learn competitiveness and to find that extra gear. She still has a chance to seize this moment in her career and make the most of it. But she’s going to have to recognize that something is missing and go after it. She is going to have to find that desire deep down within herself. We can’t do the caring for her. It just doesn’t work that way.
It’s time for her to listen to Venus and figure it out. No more excuses.