Serena Williams’ loss in the final of the Australian Open was a shocker. But her disappointed fans can find solace in the fact she already has 21 Grand Slam singles titles and has notched her place in history as perhaps the greatest ever in women’s tennis.
But what about the fans of Sloane Stephens? They must still be scratching their heads and going Huh?! over her first-round defeat Down Under. They must again be wondering if she ever will achieve the promise she showed three years ago when she knocked Serena out of this tournament in the quarterfinals.
That victory, Sloane’s incredible athleticism and a monster forehand spawned great expectations for the then 19-year-old from Plantation, Fla.. who also possesses a smile that could melt glaciers. She was widely heralded as the heir apparent to Serena’s throne atop women’s tennis.
Perhaps the pressure has been too great and the comparison unfair
Although Sloane also reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2013 and finished that year ranked No. 11 on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, her performance over the past three years has been on a roller-coaster and has raised questions about her competitive drive.
Some of her losses were marked by visible dejection and/or petulance when things were not going her way.
Consider this observation from Phil Harvin, 39, of Germantown, MD., a longtime tennis enthusiast and USTA teammate, who says he has been following Sloane since her arrival on the pro tour:
“Sloane Stephens is a natural athlete and a good tennis player,” he wrote in an email. “I sometimes wonder if she is interested in being great at tennis.”
At the start of the 2016 season, Sloane appeared ready to burst through and again become part of the conversation among analysts making their picks on who will challenge Serena in the major tournaments.
She captured her second WTA title — her first came at the CitiOpen last August in Washington, D.C. — in Auckland, New Zealand, a week before the Australian Open in Melbourne. In doing so, she showed a quiet resolve I had not seen before.
While it’s doubtful Sloane will ever be as demonstrative as Serena with her fiery “C’mon!,” it was good to see a firm fist pump here and there and a steely look of determination, as she defeated Carolyn Wozniacki, 6-2, 2-6, 6-3, for the first time in six meetings in a rain-delayed semi-final.
With new coach Kamau Murray in her box, Sloane seemed to also have a new attitude. She regrouped instead of succumbing to frustration after losing the second set against Wozniacki and persevered to defeat Julia Goerges, 7-5, 6-2, only a few hours later in the championship.
“We’ve just started and done well together, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the year and excited with what we have in store together,” Sloane said of Murray, a black tennis coach from Chicago, after that match.
But at the Australian Open, Sloane’s tennis alter-ego re-emerged, as she lost 10 games in a row to go from being up 3-1 in the first set to losing the match 3-6, 3-6 to Wang Qiang, a Chinese qualifier ranked No. 102 . Sloane’s forehand was awry, and her disposition was moody.
As she pointed out in that post-game interview in Auckland, it’s a long season. Currently ranked No. 25, Sloane has the game. The question is whether she has the fire in her gut to be a major champion.
In his email comment, my friend Phil Harvin referred to a Tennis Channel profile of Sloane in its “Tennisography” series.
“I watched the tennisography on her, and it seemed like she kind of backed into tennis and just happened to be good at it,” Phil said. “Talent can only take you so far, which is about where she is…the next level is a desire that can only be quenched by wanting to compete to be the best.”
I am extremely impressed by Sloane’s inherent gifts. She is the daughter of the first black woman to be named an All-American college swimmer and a former NFL running back. I have followed her ride up and down the WTA ranks and have praised her awesome talent.
I still believe Sloane has boundless potential and could become a grand slam champion and perhaps the top woman tennis player in the world.
But I, too, saw that Tennis Channel biography and the doubts I have about her desire have been fueled by something she says in a blurb promoting it.
“In the beginning, I don’t know that I really loved tennis…” Sloane says.
That comment, perhaps, explains it all.