Enigmatic Sloane Stephens finding new maturity

American enters Roland Garros showing signs of form that had her tipped as Williams’s successor

Sloane Stephens practises on Simonne-Mathieu Court at Roland Garros. ‘At her best, there are times when it seems Stephens is playing a different sport to her peers.’ Photograph: Pete Kiehart/The New York Times

Sloane Stephens practises on Simonne-Mathieu Court at Roland Garros. ‘At her best, there are times when it seems Stephens is playing a different sport to her peers.’ Photograph: Pete Kiehart/The New York Times

 

Sloane Stephens grew up surrounded by dead bodies. Her extended family owns a funeral home, so her formative years were spent in freezers filled with corpses, dressing bodies for funerals and driving the family hearses. She is banned from greeting mourners because she once cried in front of a group of them. She gleefully lists cremation and embalming as her interests. And, yes, she knows that she is strange.

When I asked the 2017 US Open champion earlier this year about living with death, her answer reflected her tendency to tackle serious subjects with irreverence: “A lot of people are scared of dead bodies but you can’t be scared,” she said. “They’re like the only thing you shouldn’t be scared of because they can’t do anything to you. You should be scared of the people walking around because you don’t know what’s gonna happen, right?”

Death is on her mind as we converge in the corner of the bustling player lounge at the Madrid Open in early May. This time, Stephens is breathlessly discussing how a friend’s dance with death affected her own career. Again, she peppers a grim story with self-deprecating punchlines and ample cursing.

Stephens was awake at 3am one morning in January 2017 when her close friend, the NBA star Quincy Pondexter, called her from New York complaining of illness. Stephens leapt into action: she alerted his sister and convinced Pondexter to go to hospital. The next time they spoke, he had been diagnosed with MRSA, was hooked up to an IV drip and was fighting for his life.

“He went to the hospital, he was in quarantine and they were like: ‘He’s gonna die’. And I was like ‘Wait, what?’” says Stephens. “I’d never experienced someone being sick like that, and someone so young. The panic that sets in . . . you’re like: ‘Oh my God, oh my God. What’s happening?’”

Stephens was recovering from surgery for a stress fracture on her left foot at the time, so she was stuck in LA. They spoke on FaceTime – from her recovery bed to his hospital ward – every day for three weeks. After five months of cursing her own bad luck and the pain in her foot, watching such a close friend stare down his mortality offered her a sobering outlook on her own problems.

“He’s about to die and I’m like: ‘F**k. My foot.’ Who gives a f**k about your foot, Sloane?” says Stephens, laughing. “It definitely gave me perspective and that’s why when I started to play again. I was excited to be back and playing.”

Stephens’s stress fracture took her out of the game for 11 months, but the time out helped her mental state. She was tired of the grind of an “overwhelming sport”, of the insularity of travelling across continents just to flit between the hotel and tennis courts, and of a press corps desperate to crown her the next Serena Williams.

Stepping away from the court had such profound effect that in her fifth event back she stood in Arthur Ashe Stadium with the US Open trophy in her hands, completing one of the great comebacks in tennis history. “It was definitely a different outlook,” she says. “I missed it, I missed playing. I got to experience so much of the real world for the first time in my entire life and being a semi-adult. It was really cool.”

Life is going by fast. I don’t wanna be grown [up]. I still want my mom to pay my cellphone bill. I am not ready for this.

Stephens backed up her 2017 US Open title by winning a big title in Miami, reaching finals at the French Open and WTA Finals last year, and solidifying her spot in the top 10. But after splitting with her coach Kamau Murray at the end of 2018, she started this year with a dire 6-6 record in the run-up to her beloved clay season. “I was there but I wasn’t there. I was on the court physically but my mind wasn’t there,” she says.

A few days before she flew to Madrid this year, Stephens took action. She hired Sven Groeneveld, the former coach of Maria Sharapova. She says that he has brought her structure. She laughs as she talks about the challenges of playing without a coach:

“[Life was] very unorganised without a coach,” she says. “It definitely gave me a break, not that I needed one, but it gave me a break to kind of just get things back in order, not only my life but my tennis life. I was able to figure some things out on my own, which I normally would have never had to do.”

It’s the middle of her answer though, the suggestion that there was value to aimlessly travelling from tournament to tournament for four months, that underlines the core tension of her career: can she and, perhaps more importantly, does she believe that she can consistently play at a high level, rather than the bursts of excellence that have defined her career to date?

If she can, she could command the sport. At her best, there are times when it seems Stephens is playing a different sport to her peers. Her strokes are fluid and easy. Most players either favour offence or defence, but for Stephens the line between them blurs to nothing – she is the fastest woman on tour and her heavy topspin forehand can batter any defence in the world. She will beat you with both. But her fatal flaw comes when her fast feet stop moving and she no longer seems to care. She sometimes looks as if she would rather be anywhere else than on a tennis court.

Physical prime

Stephens is 26. She should be in her physical prime. Off the court, she recently became engaged to Toronto FC footballer Jozy Altidore – she seems happy. Still, she recoils at the idea that she is growing up: “It’s weird that I have a real life outside of tennis. But do I feel grown? No. Life is going by fast. I don’t wanna be grown. I still want my mom to pay my cellphone bill. I am not ready for this.”

In the same breath, Stephens feels the clock ticking. Her views on age reflect the duality of tennis players, who learn they are often mature on court but less so away from it.

“I feel like I’ve been through a lot,” she says. “It’s my eighth year in Madrid. That’s a lot of time. After the second or third year, you’re like getting used to it, but eight years? I’m like: ‘Damn, I’m old.’ One of my first times playing here, I played Li Na and I was like: ‘This is the best thing that ever happened to me’. Now she has been retired for five years.”

In an individual sport such as tennis, age and power only bring responsibility if you seek it. Some top players, such as Sharapova, only ever look out for themselves, but Stephens seems to be finding her voice and embracing the idea of being a leader. During the Australian Open, ESPN showed images of her vanquished opponent, Petra Martic, weeping behind the scenes. Stephens was irate. More importantly, she recognised that she had the power to change things. So she marched to ESPN and demanded that the footage be erased.

“I had to go. I was standing up for my girls. She’s a competitor, but I . . . think that if it was a guy, they wouldn’t have put it up there,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m not afraid to say what I feel. If no one was going to speak up for her, I was.”

Stephens reached the semi-final in Madrid, a promising result ahead of Roland Garros. It was striking how relaxed and at ease she seems with her life and responsibilities beyond the court. That hasn’t always been the case during parts of her career when, hurt by media coverage, she retreated into her shell.

It is also notable how highly she is regarded by her peers. When a journalist listed some of the contenders in Paris to Simona Halep, who defeated the American in last year’s final, Halep interjected with just one word and a smile: “Stephens.” She didn’t need to elaborate. Stephens could lose in the first round of Roland Garros or tear the field apart. Nobody knows what she will do, but as long as she is in the draw, still walking around and still alive, she will be feared. – Guardian

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