One of the first things I do whenever I go home to Cleveland is call my best friend Rimp to set up some tennis court time. I can always count on getting in a good hitting session with Rimp, even though he may not have played since the last time I was there. That could be six months or more.
A former professional baseball player, Rimp has great hand-eye coordination. He was a remarkable hitter for his size. He has become an excellent golfer, and he has always been an exceptional pool player. I imagine he would do well in any game involving a ball and a stick.
But beyond that God-given ability, it is Rimp’s competitive drive that makes him a tough opponent in any contest.
We often talk about competing and agree losing is most acceptable when you have competed to the best of your ability. I have thought about that a lot lately while reflecting on Sloane Stephens, who lost eight straight singles matches after winning the prestigious US Open tennis tournament last September, her first Grand Slam title.
After watching Sloane lose her opening round match a few weeks ago at this year’s Australian Open, I found myself questioning whether she will ever win another. Why? Sloane does not compete well when the going gets tough.Embed from Getty Images
What does it mean to compete? The most common definition of the word is “to try” to beat your rival in a contest. But my preferred definition is “to strive” to outdo your opponent.
To “strive” is to try hard. And that’s what Rimp and I mean when we talk about competing – trying hard. For us, competing means giving your all. It means overcoming adversity. It’s digging deep when your spirits are low.
But it’s not just a physical thing. Competing also means figuring out how to win when your A game is on vacation.
Some describe fierce competitors as people who hate to lose. I see them as people with an intense desire to win. Think Serena. Think Rafa.
Sloane lacks that competitive fire. How else do you explain how someone with such awesome athleticism and talent loses so often to players she should beat? She lost both her Fed Cup matches in the championship last Fall against Belarus to opponents ranked outside the top 80 on the Women’s Tennis Association tour.
Sloane’s tendency when her game is off is to sulk rather than fight through the doldrums.
At the Australian Open, she won the first set 6-2 against No. 34 Zhang Shuai. She lost the next two sets, 6-7, 2-6. As Zhang became more competitive, Sloane became dispirited.
During the post-match interview, reporters questioned Sloane about her slump. She brushed it aside as “just one of those things” that happen in tennis.
This is not the first time I have vented my frustration with Sloane, whom I deeply admire for what she does off the court, using her foundation to bring tennis to inner-city kids. She also has found time to earn an online college degree in communications studies. Anyone who saw her brief stint with Tennis Channel might say she has a future as a commentator.
But I am not the only one to question her inner resolve on the tennis court. Chris Evert, winner of 18 Grand Slam tournaments, publisher of Tennis Magazine and an ESPN tennis analyst, recently discussed how disappointed she was with Sloane in a conference call with reporters.
“I question whether she has a burning desire to win more Grand Slams or be No. 1,” Evert said.
At 24, Sloane, currently ranked No. 12, has plenty of time to prove her doubters wrong.
In 2013, she was tagged a budding superstar after knocking off Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. She reached her highest ranking of No. 11 in October of that year.
But Sloane faded from the spotlight with inconsistent play. She finished each of the next three seasons ranked outside the top 30. However, she did pick up four WTA titles during that stretch, with her first coming in 2015 at the Citi Open in Washington, DC.
Sloane’s journey to the US Open championship was nothing short of remarkable after having been sidelined for several months by a foot injury and plummeting to below 900 in the rankings. She entered the tournament ranked No. 83, the lowest of any player to win the title.
Sloane recently snapped her losing streak with two wins at the Mexico Open before falling in three sets to Stefanie Voegele, ranked No. 183, in the quarterfinals.
It’s not uncommon for a player to experience a hiccup after winning her first major, given all the extra attention and obligations that come with being a Grand Slam champion. Most champions return to their winning ways after a couple of losses. The sweet taste of success makes them hungry for more.
I suspect Sloane is content to savor what she has and not go back for seconds.
I hope I’m wrong. But I’m afraid that when the Tennis Channel revises its feature on “one-slam wonders” 10-20 years from now, Sloane Stephens will be among them.