One of the pleasures of being a tennis fan is the constant introduction to new talent just as your favorites begin inevitably to decline. One of the difficulties of being a tennis fan is the constant introduction to new talent just as your favorites begin inevitably to decline. It’s a conundrum I have been struggling with ever since the era of Boris Becker who is the first tennis player I truly adored, never mind his sordid personal life.
Sometimes I cope by attaching myself immediately to a new talent and hoping that they will stick around for a long enough time so that I could reap the benefits. Sometimes this works, and Serena and I have managed to have a long and fruitful relationship. Never mind that she doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall.
Other times I wonder if my instant attachment is going to misfire after all. Like when I fell in love with Alize Cornet of France. I still haven’t earned my payback from that investment. Daily she is starting to look like a talented player who will remain an also-ran. Never mind the pride with which she sticks her nose in the air.
But then along will come a player who seems to make everyone sit up and take notice. This is not about love and attachment. It’s not about hoping and wishing. It’s about respect. Here is a talent that can go the distance, no questions asked. And yes, I am talking about Sloane Stephens.
I took a photograph of Sloane Stephens practicing at the US Open two years ago. Every year when I go to the US Open, I walk around and take pictures of the Juniors as they practice for their matches. I remember Sloane. I remember the pride of her coach as he gave my daughter and I permission to snap away. His body language seemed to be proudly saying, “Yes, take notice of her now because she is going to be the real deal”.
I did not see Sloane play any matches at that 2008 US Open Junior event. In fact the first time I saw her play was her match against the defending champ, Vera Zvonareva, at Indian Wells yesterday. It was Sloane’s fourth match at this event, having survived two qualifying rounds, as well as beating the more experienced Lucie Hradecká in two tough tie-breaks in the first round.
I don’t want to read too much into Slone’s run at Indian Wells. It’s dangerous to predict too much based on a single streak. Just ask Melanie Oudin. I believe that too much came to be expected too soon from Oudin and she seems to be crumbling under the pressure to deliver. It may help a little that Virgin Mobile only offered her a one-year investment deal, but still that too comes with crushing expectations, one of which is a one million dollar charity donation if she wins the US Open. The last thing Oudin needs is that kind of pressure. I was not surprised when she got kicked out of Indian Wells in the first round, losing to a 27-year-old Italian grinder named Roberta Vinci. Afterward Oudin exclaimed that Vinci was ten years older. As if that has anything to do with anything. Then again, when you’re forced to swallow a bagel in the third set, you probably need to come up with desperate and ageist excuses.
So the last thing I want to do is to add pressure on Sloane Stephens. But damn it’s hard not to get excited. She is tall which is always an advantage in tennis. She is strong and fit which are givens for any pro (and I will never ever understand why commentators keep harping on this when commenting on games involving players of color, a subtle dismissal of the players’ actual ability in my opinion). Most importantly, Sloane has serious game. She sets up points intelligently and closes out games with fierceness. At 16, she has time to grow into her potential. Around her neck she wears a necklace given to her by a grandfather with the inscription, “in calmness and confidence”. I could not describe her game better.
And truly there was something psychologically healing about the way the Indian Wells’ crowd embraced and openly rooted for this African-American junior. Perhaps this too was a factor in Sloane’s gutsy performance, which has earned her a big jump in the singles rankings. She has miles to go of course, so I am not going to make any predictions about how well she will do on her journey. All I will say for now is, well hello there Sloane Stephens.