Sloane Stephens, through Personal Tumult, Leads by Example

By Chris Oddo | @TheFanChild | Friday April 9, 2021


 


The pandemic has been beyond challenging for Sloane Stephens, and this week in Charleston she is emerging as a beacon of hope.

Photo Source: Chris Smith/ Volvo Car Open

If you’re looking for inspiration during these difficult times – let’s be honest, who isn’t? – we suggest reading between the lines a bit.

Tennis Express

Dig beneath the surface and you might find that Sloane Stephens is the true American hero you need during these times of strife. Forget about the statistics, the losing streak (remedied this week in Charleston) and a recent change of coaches. Instead look at the courage of an elite professional who is not afraid to admit that playing through the pain of a heavy heart has been a difficult, harrowing experience.

Stephens’ aforementioned five-match losing streak that started with a second-round loss at Roland Garros last year and did not end until a few weeks ago at Miami? It may represent the most impressive stretch of Stephens’ career. Given her personal travails during the pandemic, it’s a wonder she even found the strength to play at all. Everybody has had it tough over the last year, there are no exceptions, but what Stephens has had to endure, losing three dear family members in short span of time this winter, is difficult to fathom.

“Obviously, like I had said before, everyone has taken the pandemic differently, and their approach is very different, expectations are very different,” Stephens said after her round of 16 victory over Ajla Tomljanovic on Thursday at the Volvo Car Open. “I think for myself personally, I had Covid, I lost three people that were very close to me. In Australia I literally had to go to my grandparents’ funeral on Zoom and I just was not ready to play. I think the pressure of contracts and the expectations of being out there and just playing … it wasn’t the right time for me.”

When put in context (which we so rarely do in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional tennis) Stephens’ inability to summon her most ethereal tennis during the last year is more than understandable. Even for the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed rookies, new to the tour and free of the baggage, it’s a process, and a slog. But to witness how Stephens has nobly gone about the business of rebuilding her passion for the game, which she says comes from ensuring that her routines are in place, has been eye opening.

We talk about tennis players as gritty fighters and shrewd, cerebral pugilists who utilize the power of the mind to gain a competitive edge: Survivors, in a word.

In the 2021 version of Sloane Stephens, we have our shining example.

“I think my happiness on court comes from training and enjoying, like practicing and, like doing all of those other things off the court also,” she says. “So I think that I’m a very routine and structured person and when I don’t have that, that really does affect my on court competitiveness, and me wanting to be there and my overall attitude, and I feel like the losses don’t really affect it but how I feel on court does, if that makes sense.”

Naturally, it can’t be easy to find that structure when heartbreak calls the shots. Stephens lost a dear aunt this January to coronavirus, and weeks later, two grandparents, which she referred to as her No.1 fans. A tennis bag, packed with racquets and full of masks to combat the coronavirus, is already heavy enough, but add the grief that comes with real loss and one can imagine how difficult it would have been to trek to Australia, with a two-week quarantine approaching, this year.

“When I’m literally talking to grief counselors and psychologists and all of these people all of the time because I am like a mess, that doesn’t really have anything to do with my tennis, it’s more just that I have gone through a lot, and to just have the expectation of ‘Oh I’m going to get out there and kill it’ – it’s not going to happen, right?” Stephens said on Thursday in Charleston. “So I think being happy on the court and being able to train and get back to what I was doing before and to enable myself to have good results is what I really had to kind of realize. Like in order to have good results you have to practice, you have to get out there, you have to have the time, you can’t be crying, you can’t be trying all of these other things.”

Until this week, Stephens hadn’t found way to win through the heartbreak – but credit to her she did find a way to cope.

“Like I had a lot going on and I think, sometimes, I think that the expectation of ‘Oh just get through it and play’ is just so far-fetched, and you do it anyway and I think it’s time to like get out of that,” Stephens said. “And like I said before my happiness isn’t really determined by wins and losses, it’s more how I feel when I’m playing and my competitiveness and me wanting to be out there. Life happens, and I think that kind of letting life settle and dealing with it and then trying to play tennis is the best way to go,” she said.

New horizons, and parting ways with longtime coach Kamau Murray

Stephens has talked about her newly formed player-coach partnership with longtime friend Darian King this week. On Thursday she elaborated on her coaching situation and told Tennis Now that she has officially parted ways with Kamau Murray. She cites the coach that helped guide her to her US Open title in 2017 as one her closest friends, but said she needed to separate the professional and personal as she tries to find herself on the tennis court in 2021.

“We’ve parted ways, and I’ve gone down to Florida to work with Diego Moyano and he’s been great,” Stephens said. “Like I said I just needed to get down and train and just hear a different voice and just really focus on my tennis and zero in. No matter what that is Diego has just been like ‘We are going to put our heads down and we are just going to work’ and I feel like I really needed that.

“There are a lot of emotional things that come with losing someone and people being close to you and all of that stuff and I think Kamau was so good for me, with that. We spent two weeks in quarantine together and all of that, and I love him to death, but I think that we were like, you know when my grandma passed and I called him – he was one of the first people I called – we were both on the phone crying together.”

Stephens feels that the decision to split with Murray is bringing her closer to a professional and personal harmony.

“As a person, as a friend, and being on the road with someone like that, Kamau is one of my closest friends,” Stephens said. “I think for me it was more like I really needed to separate my emotional and my tennis so I really could just like bunker down, play and not think about anything else, and I think separating the two has been helpful for me, so that’s been good.”

Stephens says that Murray is one of her closest friends, no matter what the terms of the relationship are. She adds that she really isn’t certain about how things will play out on the coaching front for the rest of the season. Moyano coaches Kevin Anderson and might not be able to accompany Stephens to tournaments. King is still on the ATP Tour, and will be playing a challenger next week. It’s one day at a time, at the moment, for Stephens.

“Well, if you talk to psychologists it’s one day at a time, so I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Diego obviously works with Kevin, so he’s travelling with Kevin. We’re in touch all the time and I obviously haven’t made any big decisions on who I am going to work with or who I am going to take with me. Honestly it’s just a day to day thing and honestly I am just trying to take it match by match.”

No matter the scenario this spring and summer, it’s clear that Stephens has made monumental strides as a person and those strides are helping her find her mojo on the tennis court again in Charleston. The fact that she’s opening up, smiling, winning matches and finding joy in her tennis is a triumph in and of itself—and reason for others to believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel.