Let’s talk. It’s just us, so we can be real.
The majority always makes the minority stand out. Now apply that concept to professional tennis. And drill down even deeper and apply it to Serena Williams and Sloane Stephens. They played each other today at the Indian Wells BNP Paribas Master’s 1000 in a round of 16 match.
We’ll talk about the match later, but I really want to address the “relationship:” they don’t have one.
And contrary to popular belief, they never really had one.
It’s no secret that professional tennis is largely non-black, making blacks the minority. Surprised? Of course not; we live that in general. But to my initial point, it makes us and the things we do stand out.
So, in keeping with that, Sloane played and beat Serena in the 2013 Australian Open and suddenly they became everything from “mentor and mentee” to “best friends” in the eyes of the media. Sure, Serena being beaten at a Grand Slam is a big deal, but the fallout of the misconception of her relationship with Sloane went from awkward to a downright rift that played out via social media and beyond. We don’t have enough African American representation in professional tennis for the ones that we do have to be at odds with one another over what would otherwise be business as usual.
I’m not certain from whence the misunderstanding or exaggeration came – which is why the aforementioned reason can only be assumed, but it spiraled completely out of control.
Was it because they followed each other on Twitter? Was it because they both live in Florida? Maybe it was because they waved or smiled at one another in the locker room during a tournament … ? Me thinks it IS because they’re African Americans and “Black Mentee Beats Black Mentor; Torch is Passed” or “Black “BFFs” Battle” stories make for sensational news.
A simple “Sloane Stephens Prevails Over an Injured Serena Williams” would’ve prevented the uncomfortable events that followed the match, but ….
All that had to be done was a little digging and it would’ve been found that no solid case was ever made to support the “friendship” or “mentorship,” as it was reported. The closest the two have ever been is likely Fed Cup teammates and even then, there was reportedly no interaction between the two.
“It’s hard to be a real mentor when you’re still in competition,” she said in truth, but without any disrespect.
Serena was never around town snapping selfies at karaoke parties and basketball games or frolicking on the beach with Sloane as she’s done with Caroline Wozniacki and Victoria Azarenka. She never singled Sloane out in interviews when asked her feelings about young Americans on the rise – at least not until the friendship/mentor misconception started circulating. And Sloane never really publicly held Serena in any high regard until that point either. She backhandedly called her mean, then said she loved it, but nothing else. In fact, when asked about her idols and inspiration for becoming a tennis professional, she named the now-retire Belgian Kim Clijsters. One would think, possibly for the same reasons the fake friendship was developed in the media, she would’ve named Serena or Venus … Or heck, even Althea Gibson, but she didn’t. Her prerogative.
“I’m annoyed. I’m over it,” she says of all the Serena mentor hype. “I’ve always said Kim Clijsters is my favorite player, so it’s kind of weird.”
So, when she did beat a physically compromised (bad ankle roll in previous match) Serena, the media went nuts and the general public followed. ” Serena Passes Torch to Sloane,” “Serena’s Reign Ended by Prototype,” and headlines in that vein were everywhere. Sloane’s Twitter numbers skyrocketed, congratulations were pouring in from fans and other high-profile athletes, interview requests and endorsement opportunities went thru the roof … It was a circus.
But it was too much, too soon – on both sides of the net.
All the attention Sloane was getting and that Serena was accustomed to getting could have ONLY rattled the cage of the ferocious champion and competitor that Serena is. And couple that with the then-31-year-old-at-the-time having to endure the misconception of the friendship and mentorship with Sloane when being interviewed about the Grand Slam loss – which ALWAYS boils her grits regardless of who dealt it. It naturally evoked a reaction – although debatable and cloaked in ambiguity – via Twitter that said, “I made you.” Sloane took the tweet as if it were about her, leading to the subsequent comments of dissent and mutual “unfollowing.”
Sloane then went on a campaign of sorts, fueling the fire, even as recently as comments made at IW 2015.
Being young and not fire-tested as her “mentor” has been, she gobbled the attention up to the point of choking on it. And when the “response” came from Serena – likely from being first insulted by the loss then injured by the out-of-control press on the matter, Sloane began publicly airing the dirty laundry of the “non-relationship.” She even went as far as to, on live television, declare Serena’s signature “C’mons” as “disrespectful” during a match in Cincinnati.
From there, the tenor of her comments regarding her former “mentor” have been largely cold or borderline disparaging, including an extremely ill-advised and scathing interview she did with ESPN magazine.
Things eventually died down, likely at the behest of her handlers, but her momentum fizzled with it.
Since then, Serena has won 4 additional Grand Slams (surpassing all but 1 open era WTA colleague) and several tour titles – beating Sloane twice along the way. She’s been known to have a long memory. Sloane, meanwhile has spiraled downward from her previous high ranking of No. 11 during that glory period of 2013, to a current world No. 42. She allowed the hype to destroy her focus and momentum, though she’s attempting to claw her way back up. She has the weapons to do it, but what’s between the ears seems to still need a little developing, maturity-wise.
It’s wise to learn from those who have gone before you, who would likely say “you can be up one day and down the next,” “speak less and do more” and “it’s not how you start, but how you finish.” But they say, youth is wasted on the young … they lack the wisdom to fully capitalize on it.
Admittedly, it would’ve been nice if they were indeed friends before, and carried it on after the battles, but it was reaching at best.
And, oh yeah, Stephens lost to her again today.
Here’s how it went:
Serena got off to a slow start after Sloane elected to receive and broke the 33-year-old in the first game, held her own serve, then broke her again.
3 games down, at 0-3, the pony tail goes up and Serena breaks back twice to level it, 3-3. Then she seemed to be conserving energy, living dangerously on her next service game, but holds to make it 4-3. Sloane then levels it at 4-all.
After a mild line call disagreement on the first point, Serena easily holds for 5-4 and earns a break point at 40-30 on Soane’s serve. Sloane, however, aggressively nabbed the next three points for 5-all. With the serve now cranking, easy hold for Williams next for 6-5. Sloane, on serve, didn’t succumb to the scoreboard pressure and tied it up, 6-6, then went on to win the tiebreaker off Serena’s forehand errors. 7-6, Stephens.
One set down and one to go, for Stephens.
Second set, Sloane drops serve out of the gate and Serena holds, but the 2001 champion has still yet to unleash the beast the lies within. She’s eerily calm even after losing the first set.
But she does hold her own serve for 2-0.
Sloane capitalized on loose play from Williams and gets on the board, 1-2, but Serena answers back with several big serves (123 range) for 3-1.
Sloane gets to 30-40 on Serena’s next service game, but she delivers a big serve and closes out for 4-2. Sloane on serve lets off the gas and Serena presses the pedal. She breaks Sloane a second time and serves for the set at 5-2.
Despite the gusting winds on court, Serena serves it out, closing with an ace, for 6-7, 6-2.
Sloane comes out and gives up the first game again for 0-1 and Serena recovers from a mildly complicated service game and holds for 2-0 in her favor. Sloane holds, Serena aggressively grazes the court with her racket *smash alert* and Sloane is on the board in the third for 1-2.
Serena’s next service game gets a little dicey, she slams a125 ace to earn ad point, then 115 to hold for 3-1.
Sloane maintains her resolve and and cranking forehand, holding her serve for 2-3. Serena’s big serving gets her through another tight service game and she holds for 4-2.
Now we’re in the 7th game, always the tricky one, with Sloane on serve, but with Serena with lust in her eyes.
Down 15-30, an errant forehand from Sloane gives Serena 2 break points. She squanders the first for 40-30. Sloane botches the first serve, and lands the second … but Serena nails it for 5-2.
Serena now serves for the match:
Sloane hits a smoking forehand for 0-15.
Serena serves an ace for 15-all.
Serena double faults for 15-30.
Serena serves a 109mph serve for 30-all.
Serena serves a bullet ace and tournament’s fastest at 128mph. Sloane challenges it, but it was well inside the box. Serena at 40-30 and match point.
Serena wins the match on an unforced error into the net by Stephens, 7-6, 6-2, 6-2.
The “mentor” gives the youngster a warm net shake and sees her off.
“I think she can be the best…a lot of respect for her,” Serena said during her on-court interview.
Then she elaborated in the press room:
“I’ve always thought Sloane can be really great. I think she’s on the right track. You know, she played really well. She had some very good wins here against two seeds.”
“So, yeah, I though it was a really positive result even today. ”
Accolades aside, the proverbial torch remains firmly in the hand of Serena Williams for now and she finds herself yet again the last American woman standing in a top level tournament. On the men’s side, Steve Johnson (to Tomas Berdych) and Donald Young (to Rafael Nadal) went out in earlier matches, leaving John Isner and Jack Sock to fight another round, the round of 16.